Touching Spirit Bear
by Mikaelsen, Ben

After Cole's anger erupts into violence, he agrees to a sentencing alternative based on the Native American Circle Justice, and is sent to a remote Alaskan island where an encounter with Spirit Bear changes his life.

Gr. 6-9. Cole Matthews is a 15-year-old, baby-faced con. The child of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, Cole has been getting into trouble most of his life. One day, he beats a fellow student so severely the boy suffers permanent physical damage. Mikaelsen's new novel is the story of Cole's redemption; it is also a look at an unusual justice system. Cole's parole officer arranges for Cole to face "Circle Justice," a Native American tradition. The Circle decides that Cole must spend a year, by himself, on a remote Alaskan island. Cole is at first resistant, but he eventually learns much about himself and his anger, and he even finds a way to help his victim. Some may argue that the change in Cole comes too quickly to be realistic, but even students with very different backgrounds will empathize with this tortured bully. As in Countdown (1997), Mikaelsen is at his best when using the story to explain other cultures. An excellent companion to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet (1987) and Allan Eckert's Incident at Hawk's Hill (1971). Marta Segal Copyright 2001 Booklist Reviews

Troubled teen meets totemic catalyst in Mikaelsen's (Petey, 1998, etc.) earnest tribute to Native American spirituality. Fifteen-year-old Cole is cocky, embittered, and eaten up by anger at his abusive parents. After repeated skirmishes with the law, he finally faces jail time when he viciously beats a classmate. Cole's parole officer offers him an alternative-Circle Justice, an innovative justice program based on Native traditions. Sentenced to a year on an uninhabited Arctic island under the supervision of Edwin, a Tlingit elder, Cole provokes an attack from a titanic white "Spirit Bear" while attempting escape. Although permanently crippled by the near-death experience, he is somehow allowed yet another stint on the island. Through Edwin's patient tutoring, Cole gradually masters his rage, but realizes that he needs to help his former victims to complete his own healing. Mikaelsen paints a realistic portrait of an unlikable young punk, and if Cole's turnaround is dramatic, it is also convincingly painful and slow. Alas, the rest of the characters are cardboard caricatures: the brutal, drunk father, the compassionate, perceptive parole officer, and the stoic and cryptic Native mentor. Much of the plot stretches credulity, from Cole's survival to his repeated chances at rehabilitation to his victim being permitted to share his exile. Nonetheless, teens drawn by the brutality of Cole's adventures, and piqued by Mikaelsen's rather muscular mysticism, might absorb valuable lessons on anger management and personal responsibility. As melodramatic and well-meaning as the teens it targets. (Fiction. YA) Copyright Kirkus 2001 Kirkus/BPI Communications All right reserved.

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