My son read Touching Spirit Bear for his sixth grade English class. He loved the book as did many of his classmates. I took this feedback and put the book on my library shelves in the middle school section. It was checked out almost immediately by a sixth grader. He hasn’t given it back to me yet. 🙂 He has renewed it for three weeks and has read the book three times. I was so impressed with the feedback, I read the book, too.
Touching Spirit Bear is at times brutal, beginning with a frank recounting of Cole Matthew’s violent assault of a fellow classmate, Peter Driscal. Cole’s attack results in very serious injuries for Peter. The injuries are so severe that Cole could be tried as an adult and sent to prison. Cole is given an option by an Indian parole officer named Garvey to take part in Circle Justice, a Native American criminal justice technique where a circle of concerned citizens and those involved in the crime, victims and perpetrators, participate in a circle to decide how best the perpetrator can pay for his or her crime and begin a healing process. Cole’s circle includes his victim Peter, Peter’s family, Peter’s attorney, Cole and his abusive father and his alcoholic mother, his parole officer Garvey, a Tlingit tribe elder named Edwin, and members of the community join together to find a way for Cole to pay for his crime without going to prison. They decide to banish Cole to a remote Alaskan island where he will live by himself for a year under the watch of an Tlingit Indian elder.
Garvey tells Cole about the Spirit Bear, a rare American Black Bear that is white and is generally found near British Columbia. Although it is rare to find a spirit bear as far North as Cole’s island, Cole sees a spirit bear within his first few days on the island. His encounter with the bear will change the direction of Cole’s life, both physically and mentally.
This book really moved me. Cole is a hard character to like. His anger and arrogance are extreme. I was touched by the dedication and honesty of the two men, Garvey and Edgar, who commit themselves to helping Cole understand the severity of his crime and that the way to rehabilitate himself is through helping his victim recover. I was also moved by Cole’s connection to the spirit bear, the natural world and the Native American traditions Garvey and Edgar taught him.
I think this is great book for middle school readers.
The author’s note talks about the effectiveness of Circle Justice, now being used in some cities instead of jail time.