Cole Matthews is angry. Angry, defiant, smug--in short, a bully. His anger has taken him too far this time, though. After beating up a ninth-grade classmate to the point of brain damage, Cole is facing a prison sentence. But then a Tlingit Indian parole officer named Garvey enters his life, offering an alternative called Circle Justice, based on Native American traditions, in which victim, offender, and community all work together to find a healing solution. Privately, Cole sneers at the concept, but he's no fool--if it gets him out of prison, he'll do anything. Ultimately, Cole ends up banished for one year to a remote Alaskan island, where his arrogance sets him directly in the path of a mysterious, legendary white bear. Mauled almost to death, Cole awaits his fate and begins the transition from anger to humility.
Ben Mikaelsen's depiction of a juvenile delinquent's metamorphosis into a caring, thinking individual is exciting and fascinating, if at times heavy-handed. Cole's nastiness and the vivid depictions of the lengths he must go to survive after the (equally vivid) attack by the bear are excruciating at times, but the concept of finding a way to heal a whole community when one individual wrongs another is compelling. The jacket cover photo of the author in a bear hug with the 700-pound black bear that he and his wife adopted and raised is definitely worth seeing! (Ages 12 and older) --Emilie Coulter
From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up-Cole Matthews is a violent teen offender convicted of viciously beating a classmate, Peter, causing neurological and psychological problems. Cole elects to participate in Circle Justice, an alternative sentencing program based on traditional Native American practices that results in his being banished to a remote Alaskan Island where he is left to survive for a year. Cynical and street smart, he expects to fake his way through the preliminaries, escape by swimming off the island, and beat the system, again. But his encounter with the Spirit Bear of the title leaves him desperately wounded and gives him six months of hospitalization to reconsider his options. Mikaelsen's portrayal of this angry, manipulative, damaged teen is dead on. Cole's gradual transformation into a human kind of being happens in fits and starts. He realizes he must accept responsibility for what he has done, but his pride, pain, and conditioning continue to interfere. He learns that his anger may never be gone, but that he can learn to control it. The author concedes in a note that the culminating plot element, in which Peter joins Cole on the island so that both can learn to heal, is unlikely. But it sure works well as an adventure story with strong moral underpinnings. Gross details about Cole eating raw worms, a mouse, and worse will appeal to fans of the outdoor adventure/survival genre, while the truth of the Japanese proverb cited in the frontispiece, "Fall seven times, stand up eight" is fully and effectively realized.Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.