The various circles that Cole notices and encounters throughout the novel symbolize connectedness community, and healing. The organization Circle Justice is the most overt iteration of this: the organization facilitates communication and, hopefully, healing for Cole’s entire community by seeking to rehabilitate Cole rather than throw him in jail for assaulting Peter. On the island, Cole begins to notice circles and cycles after the Spirit Bear mauls him, when he becomes aware of his own helplessness—that is, he becomes aware of his own vulnerable position in the circle of life. As Cole learns his own place in this metaphorical circle, he also begins to see the importance of helping others learn about the importance of connectedness. At the end of the novel, when Cole and Peter carve a circle on Cole’s totem pole, it symbolizes their newfound understanding that they’re a part of each other’s community—and finally, more than a year and a half after Cole beat Peter, that they’ve both healed from the emotional trauma of that incident.
Circles Quotes in Touching Spirit Bear
“Justice should heal, not punish. If you kill my cat, you need to become more sensitive to animals. You and I need to be friends, and I need to forgive you to get over my anger. That’s Circle Justice. Everybody is a part of the healing, including people from the community—anybody who cares. But healing is much harder than standard punishment. Healing requires taking responsibility for your actions.”
“Other animals come here for water, too,” Edwin said. “How would you feel if a bear made its den beside the stream?”
Cole shrugged. “I’d kill it.”
The potbellied elder nodded with a knowing smile. “Animals feel the same way. Don’t forget that.” [...] “You aren’t the only creature here. You’re part of a much bigger circle. Learn your place or you’ll have a rough time.”
“Will Peter be there?”
Garvey shrugged. “It’s up to him. He may not be ready to forgive you.”
“I don’t care if he forgives me.”
Garvey rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced up toward the ceiling. “How come everything is always about you? This forgiveness isn’t for you. Unless Peter forgives you, he won’t heal.”
“If the Driscals realize that the Circle allows them to have a voice in decisions, and that forgiveness can help Peter to heal, they may also join the Circle.”
“You mean they might help decide my sentence?”
Garvey nodded. “Maybe.”
“They’ll hang me,” Cole said. “I’m dead.”
“I think you’ve already hung yourself,” Garvey answered.
Cole’s gaze wandered in a big circle around him. All of the landscape, the air, the trees, the animals, the water, the rain, all seemed to be part of something bigger. They moved in harmony, bending and flowing, twisting and breathing, as if connected. But Cole felt alone and apart. His soaked clothes chilled his bones. The hard ground pushed at his wounded body like a big hand shoving him away.
“I did care about you. But helping others is how I help myself.”
“You need help?” Cole asked, surprised.
Garvey nodded. “I see a lot of myself in you. When I was your age, I spent five long years in prison for things I’ll go to my grave regretting. I lived my early years here in Drake, but no one cared enough to take me through Circle Justice.” He shook his head with a sad smile. “Take my word for it, jail scars the soul. And I was never able to help those I hurt.”
Cole fought back his own tears. “I’m part of some big circle that I don’t understand. And so are you. Life, death, good and bad, everything is part of that circle. When I hurt you, I hurt myself, too. I don’t think I’ll ever heal from what I did to you, but I’m sorry, Peter. I really am sorry.”