Cole Matthews is a violent, out-of-control, angry teen. He has
been in and out of trouble with the police for most of his teenage
years, committing first crimes against property and, increasingly,
crimes of violence against people. His latest outrage - a mindless,
vicious attack on innocent bystander Peter Driscal, has left his
victim with permanent brain damage and profound psychological
Angry and resentful, Cole seems on an inevitable trajectory to
prison, and perhaps therefore also to a life of crime. Through
the compassionate intervention of two community workers whose
motivation is atonement for their own (undisclosed) youthful criminal
behavior, Cole is offered the chance to participate in Circle
Justice - a process of restitution based on Native American tradition.
Circle Justice offers the chance for atonement for the perpetrator
of the crime, the chance for restitution, and perhaps also for
the victim and community's forgiveness. These concepts are in
fact completely foreign to Cole, himself the victim of an unstable
and violent home situation. Just as Cole has been exposed to the
damage and lies of alcoholism and domestic violence, so too is
he deeply scarred. Cole's caseworkers know that the deep resentment
and anger that Cole harbors make him an unlikely candidate for
Circle Justice. When he is initially given his "sentence"
- one year's solitary confinement to a remote island in the Alaskan
waters, it is clear to the reader that his commitment to the program
is surface only. His first act once left in solitary confinement
on the remote island is one of extreme vandalism followed by a
thwarted attempt at escape.
It is ultimately the intervention not by any person, but by the
giant, powerful Spirit Bear of the story's title that triggers
the beginning of a change in perspective for Cole. This legendary
(though also very real) Spirit Bear encounters and responds to
Cole's aggression by savaging him and leaving him close to death.
Through this near-death encounter Cole is humbled enough to start
on a long and very painful journey of atonement, a journey that
that eventually enables him to see himself no longer as the center,
but as only a small part of a much larger and much richer whole.
Michaelson gives us a full picture of teenage Cole's troubled
personality, his life, his chances and his painful growth. He
paints a picture of an angry, out-of-control teen who resists,
wrestles with, and finally accepts, the chance to face responsibility
for his choices. The novel's bringing together of Cole and his
damaged victim, Peter at the end is perhaps unlikely, and yet
this idealized conclusion nevertheless suggests to the reader
a potentially constructive alternative to conventional routes
of punishment and retribution, and a thoughtful, positive view
of the chance to heal deep wounds.
© 2001 Judith Catton
Judith Catton is a teacher and librarian with a longstanding interest in
children's literature. After completing graduate study in Library and
Information Science, and in English in Ontario, Canada, she has worked as a
children's specialist in public libraries in both Canada and New Zealand.
Her professional interests span children's literature and learning, and
information literacy. Her current professional focus is full-time teaching
in a New Zealand primary school.