Cole Matthews knelt defiantly in the bow of the aluminum skiff as he faced forward into a cold September wind. Worn steel handcuffs bit at his wrists each time the small craft slapped into another wave. Overhead, a gray-matted sky hung like a bad omen. Cole strained at the cuffs even though he had agreed to wear them until he was freed on the island to begin his banishment. Agreeing to spend a whole year alone in Southeast Alaska had been his only way of avoiding a jail cell in Minneapolis.
So begins the saga of Touching Spirit Bear. Ben Mikaelsen writes with an amazingly clear teen voice. His stories are wonderfully compelling and full of suspense. In Touching Spirit Bear, you can see that right from the opening paragraph you have to read on to find out where Cole’s anger comes from and to learn if he will survive his ordeal of isolation in the island wilderness of his banishment.
Cole is defiant. He is one angry young man blaming everyone but himself for his difficulties. Despite a wealthy upbringing, he has spent years in just about every kind of trouble imaginable; in and out of police stations and from one “help” department to another, one counsellor to another, playing the game to escape punishment. His parents have always rescued him in the past but this time, with his victim (Peter) lying in a hospital bed with possible permanent head injuries, they decide it is time for him to face the music. Submitting to native Circle Justice seemed to Cole a better idea than going to adult court and a certain prison sentence. Even though he has agreed to spend a year on the island, every once of strength within him is determined to escape.
This book is full of adventure, courage, nature, and First Nation culture; it is a journey of learning about self and of finding a place to exist that includes accepting yourself and caring for others. The banishment is not meant to be a punishment but a healing. Mikaelsen intersperses flash-backs to how Cole has ended up on this lonely island with his present circumstances on the island as he first destroys his shelter and supplies, fails his attempt to swim away, and must survive on his own resources. Then he meets the Spirit Bear — a great black bear that is pure white; not a myth, but a living bear that mauls him and leaves him maimed and powerless. How will he heal both inside and out?
Published in 2001, this novel has won awards and acclamation for its perception and poignancy. Mikaelsen’s writing expresses wide knowledge of his subject matter and portrays vivid pictures for the reader. His stories make other cultures very real to us. Ben and his wife, Connie, live in the wilderness near Bozeman, Montana. Part of their family was a large black bear, Buffy, which they adopted and raised for 26 years until it’s death in 2010. Born in Bolivia in 1952, Ben has written more than a dozen children’s novels, each with its own unique voice. Touching Spirit Bear is available in many formats from Amazon and other fine book sellers. * * * * *