Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reader's Diary #707- Ben Mikaelsen: Touching Spirit Bear

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Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear, a YA novel about an angry 15 year old boy named Cole Matthews. Having smashed another boy's face into a sidewalk and causing permanent damage, Cole is given a choice between prison or Native American Circle Justice. To avoid prison, Cole chooses the latter and is sent to live in isolation on an island of the coast of Alaska.

It's an interesting premise, if not a believable one (Cole isn't even Native). It gets even more far-fetched, from a legal point of view as the book progresses. Ben Mikaelsen at least acknowledges this leap of faith in his author's note at the end, saying that he hopes in real life "any healing path would remain a possibility." With the revolving door that has defined life for so many young offenders in Canada and the U.S. perhaps Mikaelsen is right that other approaches may be necessary than our current legal systems provide.

At times the writing is too over-the-top. Cole is angry, yes, and with reason to be. But Mikaelsen hammers on that fact so often that Cole sometimes appears too cartoonish.
What luck, Cole thought. To end up on an island with a stupid bear that didn't have brains enough to run away. And the seagulls? He hoped they choked to death.
Really? The seagulls? Was that necessary? A little later he's irritated by some baby birds. Cole had the authenticity of a character in an after-school special. (Do those things still come on?)

Touching Spirit Bear is predictable in that you expect this experience to change Cole for the positive and he does. However, the path he takes it not at all what I would have guessed. In fact, it's the sudden left-turns that saved the book from its stereotypical characters. Did it save it enough for me to bother with the sequel? Probably not, but at least I don't feel as if I've wasted my time reading it.

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