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Book Review: Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

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It’s not often that we have the opportunity to read a book that includes a significant Native American cultural perspective. The current taste in youth fiction, which appears exclusive to vampires and witches for the time being, is particularly removed from stories about acceptance of personal responsibility and maturing into adulthood. Touching Spirit Bear is an exciting and inspiring youth novel that incorporates both of these elements.

I found this book by accident, browsing the shelves of current youth fiction. I was drawn to the strength of spirit that was emphasized in the description of the story line. Touching Spirit Bear is about a violent, disenfranchised youth, Cole Matthews, who is given the opportunity to avoid hard time in prison for assault by submitting himself to Native American Circle Justice. After learning spending time speaking with the boy and each other and considering the nature of his crime, the circle elects to send him into a one-year banishment on a deserted island. Cole will be provided with supplies and a shelter, but he will be expected to fend for himself throughout the time he is alone.

As one might expect of a jaded juvenile delinquent, Cole believes at first that he can “game the system” by pretending to be sorry for his actions, when in fact he feels defiant. When he is left at the island, he engages in a fit of rage that results in the burning down of his shelter and the loss of many of his supplies.

Despite this loss, his anger does not dissipate and he becomes obsessed with the idea of killing the legendary Spirit Bear he sees wandering at the periphery of his activities. It is not until he is mauled by the bear and left almost dead in a thunderstorm that Cole’s anger is transformed into hope for survival and betterment. After he is found and receives medical treatment, the Circle does not want to give him another chance, but his social worker is able to convince them.

The author, Ben Mikaelsen, communicated Cole’s raw anger and dissonance with life in a vivid and believable manner. In this book, Cole is not able to transform himself through platitudes and a sunny can-do Disney-style dance number. He is forced to finally lay down everything he thinks he knows about himself, including almost giving up life itself, to tear himself from the self-destructive path he has been on.

I highly recommend Touching Spirit Bear for teens as an inspiration and to provide an alternative to the easy-way-out, life-change-in-a-30-minute-episode mentality that pervades such a large portion of their current culture.

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