Fifteen-year-old Cole wants nothing more than to avoid going to jail—which is why, after brutally beating up his classmate Peter Driscal, he initially acts penitent and agrees to sign up for an alternative correctional program called Circle Justice. As Cole sees it, Circle Justice may make him do “stupid” things like pretend to be sorry in front of his community, but Cole is a skilled actor and knows he can play the part. Things get out of hand, however, when Circle Justice connects Cole to a Native American community in Alaska that offers yearlong periods of banishment on remote islands for offenders participating in Circle Justice. It takes far longer—more than a year and a half—and getting mauled by a bear, but Cole ultimately does feel truly sorry for his violent behavior. However, Cole discovers that undergoing this change in himself isn’t enough to make amends for his past mistakes. Through Cole’s progression, the book suggests that in order to make things right, a criminal offender must take full responsibility for their actions and help others in their community forgive and heal—and specifically, an offender should help their victim heal from the pain that they caused.
The organization Circle Justice facilitates restorative justice, which proposes that it’s not enough to punish a person who committed a crime by sending them to jail or charging them a fine. Rather, restorative justice holds that in order to make things right, an offender must work with their community to learn about the many consequences of their actions, and ultimately, to help their entire community heal—including the victim of the crime. The most important element of this is that Circle Justice is community-oriented—something that doesn’t appeal at all to Cole’s fundamentally selfish nature. When first presented with the opportunity to participate in Circle Justice, Cole is dismissive of everything other than the program’s potential to shorten or eliminate a possible jail sentence. In other words, Cole enters into Circle Justice for purely selfish reasons. For that matter, Cole doesn’t feel as though he has anything to atone for: in his mind, it was Peter who made the mistake of crossing Cole and that’s why Peter got beat up. Additionally, Cole believes that his actions are further justified since his mom and dad are divorced and don’t seem to care about him. Thus, when Cole first arrives on the remote Alaskan island where he’s supposed to serve his banishment, he has no real understanding of why he’s there and believes he has no reason to change his thoughts or his behavior.
Through Cole’s experiences on the island, the novel makes the case that it’s impossible to change and take responsibility for one’s actions if one doesn’t experience empathy or compassion. Though the purpose of Circle Justice isn’t to put its participants in danger, Cole only begins to take responsibility for his actions when he makes the questionable choice to approach and attack a Spirit Bear. The bear quickly puts Cole in his place: it breaks Cole’s ribs, his pelvis, his legs, and an arm, in addition to shredding Cole’s torso. While Cole never outright makes this connection, he only begins to take responsibility for his actions and feel genuinely bad for Peter after being forced to experience pain similar to the pain he inflicted on Peter. Because Cole underwent this change of heart, his parole officer, Garvey, and Garvey’s connection in Alaska, Edwin, do everything in their power to get Cole back on the island to serve his period of banishment as originally planned. The second time around, the time alone gives Cole the space to dive into his thought processes and to feel truly sorry for what he did. He begins to understand that all lives have meaning, including the lives of the Spirit Bear and of Peter himself—important lessons for a person going through restorative justice, and ones that Cole likely wouldn’t have been able to learn in jail.
Though Cole is thrilled with his change in his outlook and expects praise for it, it’s not until he learns that Peter attempted to commit suicide after the assault that he realizes his process of healing and getting justice isn’t over. Rather, if Cole is going to truly take what he learned through Circle Justice and complete his journey, he must help Peter to heal and forgive as well. To do this, Cole proposes a wild plan: to invite Peter to stay on the island with him (supervised by Garvey), so that Peter can see that Cole has changed but also so that Peter can take advantage of some of the healing and thought-provoking aspects of living such an isolated life. That Cole would suggest such a thing in the first place speaks to how much he’s changed during his period on the island. By the end of the novel, he’s come to understand that justice isn’t justice if only he himself has changed for the better—all parties need to be served justice and in a best-case scenario, which include Cole and Peter’s community, not just the boys themselves. Only then, the novel suggests, is it possible to truly heal from pain, trauma, and violence.
Justice and Responsibility ThemeTracker
Justice and Responsibility 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.”
“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 studied Peter. Peter hadn’t sounded like this before. Cole wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. It wasn’t like he had meant to hurt anyone. Besides, this wouldn’t have happened if Peter had kept his mouth shut.
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.
Wincing, he wiped at his mouth with his left hand, then stared at the glistening red on his knuckles. It reminded him of the bear’s blood on the knife blade beside him. It also looked like the blood he had seen on the sidewalk after beating up Peter. The blood looked identical. This thought drifted about in his head but failed to gain meaning. Blood might look the same, but Peter was a loser and a jerk.
“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.”
“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 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.”
“There’s still something missing. It isn’t enough to be sorry and forgive. Somehow I have to figure out a way to help Peter. Until then, I’ll never be able to carve anything in the blank space. That’s what I had to discover before I could heal, wasn’t it?”
Edwin smiled slightly and nodded. “How to help Peter heal is something that will haunt you and stay in your thoughts like a sliver under your skin. The harm you did to him will fester and pain you all your life unless you’re able to make up for it.”
“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.”
The next morning Cole hiked alone to the pond. He soaked as long as he could, his calmness shaken by how terrified Peter was of him. How could he have once wanted someone to feel that way? No matter how deeply he breathed, soaking failed to take away his troubled thoughts.
“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.”
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.”