Touching Spirit Bear

by

Ben Mikaelsen

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Touching Spirit Bear: Chapter 1  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Cole kneels in the boat. He strains at his handcuffs, even though he agreed to wear them until he reaches the island where he’ll begin his yearlong banishment in Southeast Alaska—the only way to avoid jail in Minneapolis. Garvey, a Tlingit Indian and Cole’s parole officer, sits in the middle of the boat. Cole doesn’t trust Garvey; he doesn’t trust anyone who doesn’t fear him. Edwin, a quiet Tlingit elder, sits in the back. When Cole met Edwin at their last stop, Edwin made Cole put his clothes on inside out to show humility and shame. Everyone thinks Cole is sorry for what he did, but he isn’t. To Cole, this is a game.
The idea that Cole doesn’t trust anyone who isn’t afraid of him suggests that Cole believes his power comes from making people afraid. By linking this idea to trust, it suggests that Cole doesn’t have many trustworthy people around him. Given this outlook, it’s not surprising that he greets Edwin and Garvey with such disdain—as far as he’s concerned, they’re peddling nonsense, and he’s not going to play along.
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Feeling a sudden wave of anger at Edwin, Cole spits so that the wind carries it back and it lands squarely on Edwin’s chest. Edwin wipes it off; Cole feigns horror. He wonders what Edwin is afraid of. Cole thinks back to everyone who tried to help him in Minneapolis. Nobody really cares about him; they sent him to drug counseling and therapy, but everyone “referred” him on. Cole soon learned that adults “referred” him when they were tired of dealing with him. He’s already been arrested many times and every time, they warned him it was his last chance. Cole now knows that he can always count on having one more last chance. It doesn’t really matter now, though. He doesn’t plan to honor his contract with Circle Justice; he’s not staying on the island.
By detailing Cole’s past dealings with the criminal justice system, it becomes clear that the system isn’t set up to actually help people change for the better—and for a person like Cole, the minor punishments he’s already received aren’t enough to point him in the right direction. Given that he believes he’ll never face consequences for his actions, it’s nothing to him to break his contract with Circle Justice (an organization that tries to help Cole reform rather than just sending him to jail).
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Last year, Cole robbed and trashed a hardware store. A week later, when he bragged about it at school, a kid named Peter Driscal turned Cole in. Cole beat him bloody in the parking lot and smashed Peter’s head against the sidewalk. This landed Cole in a detention center. At the detention center, Cole refuses to do his schoolwork and thinks that he’s only here because Peter wouldn’t fight back. What angers Cole most, however, is his mom and dad’s behavior. They used to always come to his rescue with a lawyer and money, but that changed when they got divorced. This time, the police refuse to let Cole go. Prosecutors attempt to get his case transferred to adult court, and even Nathaniel Blackwood, the expensive lawyer Cole’s dad hired, doesn’t know if he can help. Cole resents his parents for this.
Cole doesn’t believe any of this is his fault—he believes that Peter’s at fault for getting beaten up, while Cole’s parents are to blame for not being able to override how the criminal justice system deals with violent offenders like Cole. Cole believes he’s above the law, and he also thinks that at times when he might not be, it’s his parents’ responsibility to buy him out of trouble. His parents’ divorce also makes a neat scapegoat, as it’s easy to blame them for uprooting his life than it is to accept that there are limits to how much money can buy.
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Cole thinks that his mom never stands up to anyone, while his dad drinks and blames everything on Cole. He tortures them when they visit by ignoring them. It irks Cole’s dad the most—with guards watching, he can’t hurt Cole. His parents finally stop visiting, but Garvey visits daily. Cole doesn’t understand what Garvey wants. One day, Garvey asks if Cole would consider applying for Circle Justice, a healing form of justice used by native cultures. He explains that normally, if Cole were to kill Garvey’s cat, for instance, Cole would pay a fine and they would still hate each other. But in Circle Justice, Cole would sign a “healing contract.” It might require him to help Garvey pick out a new kitten, watch a vet operate, or help care for a cat.
This passage reveals several important things here: first, it’s implied that Cole’s dad is physically abusive, as it’s only in front of the guards that his dad can’t hurt him. This suggests that Cole may be lashing out because violence is all he knows—essentially, he may be part of a cycle of violence. Then, although Cole blames his mom for never standing up for herself, it’s possible that given his own self-centeredness, he doesn’t understand that she might also be in danger of Cole’s dad and may also be a victim.
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Cole is dismissive and doesn’t know why he’d do this, but Garvey points out that Cole is also a victim—something happened to make him kill a small animal. When Garvey reaches out to clap Cole on the back, Cole shrinks. Nobody touches him except to hurt him. Garvey continues that justice should heal, not punish. Healing, however, is much harder than punishment, as it means an offender needs to take responsibility for their actions. As soon as Garvey mentions that participating in Circle Justice might reduce Cole’s jail sentence, Cole puts on an innocent voice and says he’s interested. He thinks that Garvey is a sucker.
Given how hard Cole tries to deflect blame, it’s unlikely that he’s is going to take Circle Justice seriously without some sort of major change in his life. It’s telling that Garvey delineates between punishment and healing. This suggests that if Cole chooses, he could make the most out of this situation and learn something from it—or he can just accept punishment. That Cole only agrees to try when he learns this might lessen his jail time makes it clear that Cole doesn’t have any interest in taking this seriously.
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