Fifteen-year-old Cole Matthews sits angrily in the bow of a small boat. He’s headed for a remote Alaskan island accompanied by Edwin, a Tlingit elder, and Garvey, Cole’s parole officer who’s also Tlingit. Cole faces a year of banishment on the island, and he resents everyone in his life for this. As Edwin and Garvey take Cole to shore, show him his crude cabin, and give him advice, Cole thinks back on how he got here.
Cole recently robbed a hardware store. When a kid named Peter Driscal rats Cole out, Cole beats Peter up and slams Peter’s head into the sidewalk. Even Nathaniel Blackwood, the expensive lawyer Cole’s parents hire, doesn’t think he can do anything to prevent Cole from being harshly punished. Garvey suggests that Cole sign up for Circle Justice, an organization that practices restorative justice. Through their program, Cole would learn to take responsibility and try to make things right with Peter, with the help of their community. Cole is dismissive until he learns that participating in Circle Justice might lessen his jail time. At the first Healing Circle meeting, Cole seethes as his parents, who recently divorced, sit on either side of him. He hates them and believes it’s their fault he’s there. Seeing Peter at the meeting is a shock—Peter limps and has a speech impediment as a result of the beating—but Cole tells himself that this is Peter’s fault. Chaos breaks out when Cole tells everyone present that his dad beats him. His dad is enraged; Cole’s mom refuses to support her son’s story. When Peter’s lawyer sarcastically notes that they can’t just ship Cole away, Garvey brings up that he’s Tlingit and that his tribe in Southeast Alaska banishes offenders to remote islands for a year. Cole puts on a brave face, but secretly, he’s terrified.
Now, on the island, Cole insists he’ll kill any bear he sees—he’s not afraid. Edwin tells him about Spirit Bears, white black bears that live south of here. He insists that if Cole takes the time to learn, he can learn a lot from the animals here. Garvey, meanwhile, offers Cole an at.óow, a Tlingit tribal blanket. He explains that it’s a symbol of trust, and Cole grudgingly accepts the object. Edwin and Garvey leave. They’ll return in a few days, but Cole has no intention of being here when they do—he’s going to swim away. He digs through his supplies and lights them and his shelter on fire, laughing maniacally. Then, he strips to his underwear and wades into the freezing bay. Cole is a strong swimmer, but he realizes the tide is coming in and working against him. His body begins to give out, so he lets the water carry him to shore. He’s so cold that he can barely think, but he drags himself to a spot that feels warm. When he comes to, he realizes it’s the smoldering remains of the shelter. As Cole plots his next move, he thinks he sees a Spirit Bear. Annoyingly, the animal doesn’t seem to be afraid of him.
The next day, it rains. Cole knows he has no choice but to swim today, but the Spirit Bear appears on the beach and Cole wants to feel powerful. He makes himself a spear, grabs his knife, and approaches the bear. When Cole hurls the spear, the bear flies into action. It chases Cole, and during their scuffle, it breaks Cole’s leg, an arm, his pelvis, and his ribs, in addition to shredding his torso. Then, it wanders away, leaving Cole with only a tuft of fur he ripped out. Cole can’t fathom how this happened—everything is afraid of him. He looks around and feels separate from the world around him. He wonders if he’s going to die.
Over the next two days, Cole exists in a pain-addled stupor. Though he initially resents a nest of baby birds in a nearby tree, he feels awful when a thunderstorm takes down the tree and kills all the babies. Cole realizes he’s powerless and wonders if his life has any meaning. After a dream in which he’s a baby bird in need of help, Cole vows to live. He eats grass, worms, his own vomit, and even a live mouse. When the Spirit Bear returns, Cole spits at it, intent on having the last word. The bear licks his spit up. When Cole wakes up later, he discovers the bear standing over him. He resists the instinct to spit—instead, Cole reaches out and touches the animal. Then, it leaves. After this encounter, Cole grows weaker. When he’s close to death, Garvey and Edwin return. They take him to Drake, where Cole spends the night in the care of Rosey, the nurse on the island. Cole is comforted by Garvey’s presence and is relieved that Garvey rescued the at.óow. Though Cole tells Garvey and Edwin everything, they’re skeptical that he saw a real Spirit Bear. As Cole prepares for his flight to the nearest hospital, he finds the white fur from the bear in his pocket. He vows that from now on, he won’t need proof, because he’ll always tell the truth. He throws the fur in the water.
Cole spends the next six months in the hospital. His mom visits him regularly. During her visits, Cole learns that his dad’s parents beat his dad when he was little; he has no idea how to be a parent without being violent. Cole’s mom agrees to accuse her ex-husband of child abuse; she also quits drinking and asks Cole for forgiveness. When Cole gets out of the hospital, he still limps and he’ll never have full use of his right arm. The one Circle meeting he attends is a disaster—everyone wants to send him to jail, even though Edwin flies in to make the case that Cole is changing. Cole resigns himself to jail, but Edwin and Garvey convince the Circle to give him another chance.
This time, Cole has to pay his own way to Alaska. He sells all his sports equipment to buy supplies and building materials for another cabin. Garvey and Edwin take Cole out to the island and insist that Cole do all the work of making camp and building his cabin. Cole resents this and struggles to keep his attitude in check. On the first night, Garvey tries to impress upon Cole that life is like a hot dog: it can do the simple work of feeding a person, or, if a person cooks it with care and shares it with friends, it can be a celebration. The next morning, Edwin wakes Cole up before dawn and takes him to a pond. They soak in the freezing cold water. Edwin shares that when he was banished to the island as a young person, he found that if he focused on the cold, he could learn to be happy. He also makes it clear that Cole’s anger will never disappear, but Cole can learn to manage it better. Though Cole thinks this makes more sense than anything his counselors told him, he still thinks soaking in an ice-cold pond is nonsense. After a hard day of work, Cole prepares supper. Since Garvey saw a whale earlier that morning, they dance a whale dance and each share what they learned from their dance. Cole thinks he looks stupid, but he learns that whales don’t have homes. Edwin says that when he’s ready, Cole will dance the dance of anger.
Edwin makes Cole accompany him to the pond again in the morning. Then, Edwin hands Cole a heavy rock, representing Cole’s ancestors, and makes him carry it up a hill. At the top, Edwin says it becomes Cole’s anger and he should roll it down the hill. Cole is sullen all day, and at supper, his attitude makes Edwin and Garvey threaten to take Cole home. Edwin insists that Cole needs to show his dedication by getting up to go to the pond and to carry the ancestor rock by himself in the morning. Terrified they’ll follow through, Cole does as he’s told. He tries to imitate Edwin’s breathing style and finds that the water doesn’t feel so cold this time around. When he carries the rock up the hill, he thinks of how far he’s come and sees a disappearing white shape. Back at camp, Cole apologizes. He explains that he knows he has to stop blaming everyone else for his mistakes—he doesn’t even blame his dad, since his dad is scared and doesn’t know better. Cole gets to work on his cabin and makes a delicious supper to commemorate Edwin and Garvey’s last night on the island. He even uses the at.óow as a tablecloth. He dances the Spirit Bear dance that night. Garvey and Edwin both accompany Cole to the pond and on his hike the next morning, and as they prepare to leave, Edwin says that Cole needs to learn one thing before he can heal—but he won’t say what that is.
Cole dutifully spends mornings soaking in the pond and hiking. One day, he remembers the totem poles he saw in Drake, and Garvey’s suggestion to carve. Cole finds a perfect log but knows it’d also make a good canoe. Cole drags it back to the cabin, barely sleeps that night, and skips the pond in the morning. He angrily starts to carve the front into a point, but then he chooses to turn the log into a totem pole and resumes his mornings in the pond. When Edwin returns, Cole tells him the truth. Cole also starts trying to become “invisible” so that he can see the Spirit Bear, but smearing his body in ash and cedar doesn’t work. Finally, Cole realizes that being invisible means becoming part of the landscape. The next morning, he sits at the point and lets himself get drenched. Sure enough, the Spirit Bear appears. That night, Cole dances the dance of anger. He dances his story of his first trip to the island. When he’s done, he shouts, “I’m sorry,” and, “I forgive you.” During Edwin’s next visit, Cole shares what he learned: that if he’s angry, someone else is controlling him. Forgiving gives Cole control. He wants to carve something on his totem to represent this, but he doesn’t know what. Cole also says that he learned he must help Peter before he can truly heal.
During Edwin’s next few visits, he seems short with Cole. Winter passes. One day in early spring, Edwin arrives with news that Peter tried to commit suicide. Cole is shocked, but not enough to please Edwin. Edwin leaves without hearing Cole’s idea for how to help Peter. A day later, Edwin returns—Peter tried to kill himself again, and no one knows how to help him. Cole suggests that if Peter could come to the island and engage in the island rituals, he’d see that healing is possible. Several weeks later, Peter, Mr. and Mrs. Driscal, and Garvey arrive. Garvey will stay on the island and supervise the boys. Peter is terrified of Cole, which Cole finds disturbing. On their first day alone, Cole attempts to give Peter a candy bar. Garvey shares that Cole’s dad is suing for custody of Cole, but he insists that Cole’s dad won’t win. Over the next few weeks, Cole sleeps in a tent far away from the cabin, and Peter is cold and rude to him. Though he accompanies Cole and Garvey on their morning ritual, he refuses to truly participate. Finally, Peter allows Cole to sleep in the cabin, but he’s inconsiderate every chance he gets. He even destroys one of Cole’s totem pole carvings. Cole and Garvey drag a log up so that Peter can carve his own totem, and one day, Cole discovers Peter fixing the carving he destroyed on Cole’s. The new carving is amazing, and Peter haughtily says that he might be willing to teach Cole to carve.
Four weeks after Peter’s arrival, Peter insists that he and Cole go alone to the pond. Peter tries to engage Cole in a fistfight, but Cole refuses to take the bait. He reiterates that he’s sorry and wants to help Peter heal and forgive. Peter collapses and admits that he’s terrified. Cole comforts Peter until he notices the Spirit Bear watching. The boys go on with their morning ritual and find another rock for Peter to carry. Cole passes the at.óow on to Peter as a symbol of their budding friendship, and then, Peter helps Cole carve a perfect circle on his totem pole to represent anger and forgiveness.