Touching Spirit Bear introduces readers to 15-year-old Cole Matthews. To say that Cole is troubled is an understatement. When readers meet him, he’s being sentenced for beating up a classmate, Peter Driscal, so violently that Peter will suffer permanent physical, mental, and emotional damage—and this is only the most recent (though the most violent) crime that Cole has committed in the last several years. At first, it seems as though Cole is angry and lashing out for no reason, but the novel slowly reveals that Cole acts out because his dad consistently abuses him—and Cole feels he has no choice but to do the same to others. The novel traces Cole and his dad’s violent tendencies back to their desire for power, which, in turn, stems from their fears of being alone, unloved, and helpless. Touching Spirit Bear demonstrates that the only way to break this cycle of violence is by acknowledging one’s powerlessness and by learning to trust others.
Early in the novel, Cole describes how he thinks of fear and trust: he doesn’t trust people who aren’t afraid of him. Making people afraid, often by hurting them, is how Cole is able to make himself feel powerful and as though he has control over something in his life. He beats up Peter in the first place because Peter told an adult about Cole’s most recent crime of breaking into, robbing, and trashing a hardware store. As Cole sees it, he can’t let Peter go unpunished for this transgression or allow his classmates to think that they can get away with tattling on him. Thus, to show his dominance, increase his classmates’ fear of him, and make sure that nobody tells on him again, Cole beats Peter at school, where all his peers can see. This is something Cole has done before—he regularly intimidates others in violent ways and then escapes consequences by pretending to be sorry. Cole, however, is never sorry; his act is carefully constructed to fool people into thinking he’s changed when, in reality, he plans to go out and commit more crimes. He has no interest in breaking the cycle of violence and has no idea how or why he should.
Following Peter’s beating, however, Cole has to confront the possibility that he might not be as powerful as he thinks he is, especially since the expensive lawyer his parents hire doesn’t think he can do anything to prevent Cole from being harshly punished. Indeed, Cole isn’t especially powerful—this is why he lashes out in the first place. The reader gradually learns that Cole’s dad has been beating Cole since he was little, often to the point where he couldn’t hide his bruises. To make things worse, Cole’s mom was well aware of this and seldom, if ever, stood up to her husband while they were married. Given Cole’s difficult upbringing, it becomes apparent that he’s violent to others because his parents make him feel as though he has no control over his life. Through this, the novel makes the point that people often become violent and seek to make others afraid of them to cover up their own insecurities.
Given his generally high rate of success with intimidating classmates and adults, Cole thinks he’s all-powerful. But when Cole is punished by being sent to a remote island in Alaska rather than going to jail, Cole cannot ignore his vulnerabilities—nor can he let go of his anger long enough to survive. He finds it galling that he shares the island with a Spirit Bear, a rare white American black bear. As far as Cole is concerned, the bear, like everything and everyone else, should be afraid of him. When it becomes clear that the bear isn’t afraid, Cole attempts to kill it—and in response, the bear mauls Cole, leaving him severely injured. Cole spends two days in a pain-addled stupor, during which time he’s forced to confront his own powerlessness. He could die, and if he does, he’ll die having seriously hurt others and with no one to care about him. It is at this point that he realizes that if he maintains his violent tendencies, he’ll always be alone.
During these two days, Cole begins to learn that the antidote to fear and the violence it generates is powerlessness and trust. He wakes up at one point to discover that the Spirit Bear is standing over him. The animal isn’t menacing, and it seems to have no interest in eating him—it’s just curious. Cole reaches out to touch the bear, which allows him to do so. This begins to teach Cole the power and the beauty of trust: if an animal (or a person) trusts him, he can do amazing things, like touch a powerful wild animal. Having made this connection, Cole uses his time in the hospital recovering from his injuries to build up trust with his mom, which helps him come to terms with the abuse he suffered as a child. His mom shares that Cole’s grandfather beat Cole’s dad when Cole’s dad was a child—as a result, when Cole was born, his dad had no understanding of how to be a parent without being violent. Cole begins to see that by beating Peter, he did the same thing as his dad by perpetuating the toxic cycle of violence—but unlike his dad, who changes little over the course of the novel (he ultimately attempts to sue Cole’s mom for custody of Cole, seemingly just to assert power over his family members), Cole comes away with an understanding of how and why one should attempt to earn and build up the trust of others.
Importantly, as Cole and his parole officer, Garvey, discuss Cole’s dad’s attempt to get custody, Garvey insists he won’t let it happen—and Cole simply trusts that Garvey is telling the truth and will keep him safe. This illustrates the novel’s final, most important point: that while violence and fear isolate people and make them feel more fearful and violent, breaking the cycle and trusting others gives a person access to a level of support that’s stronger than one person can ever be on their own.
Fear, Power, and Cycles of Violence ThemeTracker
Fear, Power, and Cycles of Violence Quotes in Touching Spirit Bear
“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 felt no regret for having burned the supplies and the shelter. Nor did he regret hurting Peter. This was all somebody else’s fault. If it weren’t for his parents, Peter, and the stupid Healing Circle, he wouldn’t even be here. Somebody would pay for what was happening. He would get revenge, especially against those who had wanted him in jail. People like Peter’s lady lawyer. He hated her.
Cole tried to gather his wits. The mauling didn’t make sense. In the past, everything had always been afraid of him. Why wasn’t the bear scared? A bear with half a brain would have turned tail and run. Instead, this dumb animal had attacked. Now it wandered out in the woods somewhere, the mauling little more than an inconvenience to its morning.
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.
The storm raged on as Cole lay trembling, his eyes frantic. The explosion had shocked his mind awake. Never in his life had he felt so exposed, so vulnerable, so helpless. He had no control. To this storm, he was as insignificant as a leaf. Cole blinked in stunned realization. He had always been this weak. How could have ever thought he truly controlled anything?
As Cole stared at the tiny bodies, sadness flooded through him. The sparrows were so frail, helpless, and innocent. They hadn’t deserved to die. Then again, what right did they have to live? This haunted Cole. Did the birds’ insignificant little existences have any meaning at all? Or did his?
Frantic, Cole struggled to fly, but he couldn’t escape the nest. All he could do was open his beak wide and raise it upward toward the sky, the action a simple admission that he was powerless. There were no conditions, no vices, no lies, no deceit, no manipulation. Only submission and a simple desire to live. He wanted to live, but for that he needed help; otherwise his life would end in the nest.
“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.”
“Ever wonder why your dad beats you?”
Cole looked up, surprised. “I’ve never done anything to him.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“He just whips me ‘cause he’s mad.”
Garvey smiled. “Remind you of anybody we know?”
“Your father isn’t a bad person, but when he was younger, he had parents who beat him for everything he did. That’s all he ever knew. When I saw him start doing it to you, I kept telling myself things would get better. Drinking helped me ignore reality.” She shook her head. “It took a divorce and you ending up in the hospital to wake me up. I realized I couldn’t change your father, but I could change me. I’m sorry you’ve gone through all you have. Can you ever forgive me?”
“I just know that my dad’s not going to ever come back to say he’s sorry. Even if he did, he couldn’t change what he did. He couldn’t take away all the memories.”
“So you think this is all his fault, huh?” asked Edwin.
“No,” said Cole, his voice trembling. “Mom said his parents beat him up, too. I don’t know where the anger all started. All I know is I don’t ever want to have a kid and beat him up.”
So, unless I go somewhere and freeze every morning, I’ll keep getting mad, huh?”
Edwin smiled but shook his head. “You only look at the left end of the stick and at the cloudy sky now because your experiences in life have made that a habit. Happiness, like anger, is also a habit. You learn to be happy one day at a time. But habits change hard. This pond will help you.”
“I just realized that I’m not a bad person. Nobody is,” he said. “People are just scared and do bad things. Sometimes people hurt each other trying to figure things out.” Cole gazed into the flames. “I hate what Dad does to me, but he must be just as scared as I am. He doesn’t want to be mean; he just doesn’t know any better.”
“How is Garvey?” Cole asked excitedly.
“He said that last week Peter tried to commit suicide.”
“Suicide!” Cole caught his breath. “Why?”
“If someone is treated as if his life is worthless, he begins to believe it.”
“But his life isn’t worthless,” Cole protested.
Edwin stood, and with one motion opened the door and flung the last of his hot chocolate outside.
“I never told him he was worthless,” Cole argued.
“Smashing his head on a sidewalk is a funny way of telling Peter he’s valuable.”
“I think it’s a matter of pride. He thinks he can always get his way and doesn’t want anyone or anything to win out over him.”
Cole traced the eraser of his pencil across the table. “I used to be like that.”
“I know you did.”
“Do you think he’ll win?” asked Cole.
Garvey shook his head. “Over my dead body.”