When we first meet Cole Matthews, it's clear that he's dealing with a ton of anger issues. After all, this is a boy who resorts to violence at the first sign of trouble. He's been in and out of the criminal justice system and is now headed to a deserted Alaskan island to serve out his sentence for beating up a boy named Peter Driscal in a particularly brutal way:
Cole jumped on him again and started smashing his head against the sidewalk. It took six other students to finally pull him away. By then, Peter was cowering on the blood-smeared sidewalk, sobbing. Cole laughed and spit at him even as he was held back. Nobody crossed Cole Matthews and got away with it. (1.21)
Whoa. Duly noted, Cole Matthews. Throughout the book, Cole deals with a lot of pent-up rage that comes bursting out in the form of violence and crime. He burns down his shelter and gets into a fight with Spirit Bear when he first comes to the island—just because he can. He's a dangerous guy to be around, and it's no wonder that Peter Driscal's family wants him to go to jail for a long time.
While Cole's outbursts might seem to come out of left field, his violent tendencies definitely have a cause. See, Cole's acting out what he's seen throughout his childhood. Because he's grown up with alcoholic parents and a father who beats him regularly, Cole is angry and thinks that violence is the only way to solve problems. His memories of his family aren't happy—in fact, he remembers distinctly the times when his father beat him up:
As Cole kept screaming, his dad kept hitting him. That night was the only time Cole's mother ever said anything in his defense. She came to the doorway, a drink in her hand. "Honey, you're hurting him," she said.
Cole's father turned around to face her. "You mind your own business or I'll use this thing on you." (6.49-50)
Cole's childhood experiences have scarred him and made him distrustful of other people. He assumes everyone hates him and want to hurt him—so he makes sure to hurt them first.
As a slim silver lining, one thing that Cole's terrible childhood has taught him is tenacity and strength. At the beginning, he believes this means he has to act like a tough guy—someone who's able to beat anyone up. When Cole challenges Spirit Bear and is severely injured, though, he realizes he doesn't necessarily have to fight everyone; just trying to survive is a show of strength in its own right. And try to survive Cole does, refusing to die even when things are looking pretty dire:
In that moment, Cole realized how badly he wanted to live. The food he had thrown up was still food. Those fish bits still contained energy, and energy was life. No thieving seagull was going to steal life from him. He jerked his arm at the gulls. "Mine," he grunted. "That's mine." (11.8)
After this horrible near-death experience, Cole decides to use his resilience for good instead of evil. He realizes Garvey is right and he should use his skills to better himself and the world around him. During his second chance on the island, Cole works hard to reform himself and prove that he won't make the same mistakes again. He even tries to prove himself to Peter, who absolutely hates Cole and refuses to talk to him when he first shows up on the island:
Cole's voice quivered. "Because the dance of anger taught me I can't heal until I help Peter to heal. He's the one I hurt."
"Leave me alone," Peter blurted, turning away. "I don't want your help!" (25.64-65)
But this time, Cole doesn't resort to his fists to get what he wants. He doesn't threaten Peter into accepting his apology, or give up on the kid as a lost cause. Instead he remains patient and shows Peter over time that he's changed—and that he's going to make it up to him, no matter how long it takes.