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Would you ever go up against a giant bear that was intent on mauling you?
Yeah, we wouldn't either. But Cole Matthews, the protagonist of Ben Mikaelsen's 2001 novel Touching Spirit Bear (and of the follow-up Ghost of Spirit Bear), isn't the kind of guy who backs down from danger. When he's sent to a remote Alaskan island to face his demons and survive on his own, Cole learns to navigate the wilderness as he spends some quality time with himself and his past mistakes.
Mikaelsen writes about the outdoors and survival with an expert hand, and the dude totally knows what he's talking about. First of all, the author lives in the mountains of Montana with his wife. Secondly, for almost 30 years, the Mikaelsens had a rather unorthodox member of their family living with them…a 750-pound bear named Buffy. When he writes about Spirit Bear in Touching Spirit Bear, you get the distinct sense that Mikaelsen knows how the animal acts in real life—and he does. After all, he's spent a whole lot of time hanging out with his very own bear friend.
Spirit Bear is this big, almost magical bear that seems to be Cole's enemy when he first arrives on the island to think about his mistakes…and to escape jail time. But even though Spirit Bear nearly kills Cole, he also helps Cole grow up and take responsibility for his own life. Cole comes to understand that Spirit Bear only hurt him because he wasn't respectful of other animals, and through his near-death experience, Cole gets a new lease on life. He takes his reformation more seriously instead of just blaming everyone else in the world for his problems.
Touching Spirit Bear is a classic quest story. Cole starts off damaged and angry, and through hard work and a whole lot of pain, he heals himself and achieves some inner peace and self-esteem. By living on the island, Cole learns that he alone is responsible for himself and has time to reflect on what he's done wrong. In the end, Cole learns how to become a better person. We aren't going to say he makes it look easy, but we will say he makes it look worthwhile.
In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is a pretty extreme character—this is a kid who's in trouble with the law for bashing a classmate's head into the sidewalk and who actually tries to fight a bear in the course of the novel. Cole, you might say, isn't exactly your average bear.
But just because Cole has pretty extreme rage issues, it doesn't mean we can't relate to him. In fact, Cole's family problems, sense of isolation, and feelings of inadequacy are experiences pretty much everyone who's ever grown up can relate to, even if we might not feel them as acutely as Cole does. (Lucky us.)
Cole does a lot of terrible things, but he does so in response to the world of hurt he holds inside. His journey is a giant reminder that even when things seem hopeless—and even when people seem too far gone to reform—there's always the prospect of a better tomorrow. Touching Spirit Bear might feature an epic bear fight, but the biggest enemy Cole has to overcome is really himself. We all stand in our own way at some point, so this is definitely a lesson worth learning.
Straight From the Source
Check out Ben Mikaelsen's website for lots of facts about his books and his fascinating life. Don't forget to click on the section about his pet bear, Buffy.
Own the Book
Pick up your very own copy of Touching Spirit Bear here.
Interested in learning more about Edwin's tribe? Check out the website for the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
An Unusual Muse
According to Mikaelsen, one of the influences that prompted him to write Touching Spirit Bear was his pet bear, Buffy. Aww.
Coming Soon to a Library Near You
Doesn't this fan-made book trailer for Touching Spirit Bear make you want to rush out and read the book?
Hearing Spirit Bear
Would you rather listen to the book while you're on a road trip? Pick up the audio book and hit the road.
Check out the intense cover image for Touching Spirit Bear. It looks like Cole and Spirit Bear are about to face off.
The Real Deal
Did you know that Spirit Bears (white black bears that hold spiritual significance to indigenous tribes) are a real thing? Here's one hanging out in the wild.
Ben and Buffy
Mikaelsen obviously has a fondness for bears. Here he is reading to his pet bear, Buffy.