Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Editor's Note, March 10, 2008: A lot of people come to this page from "Web English Teacher" and may be surprised to read the critical review below. I hope that you'll consider it and the other essays on this site about Touching Spirit Bear. Share what you read here with your students. How does information provided here compare to positive and favorable reviews? Does the negative review change your view of the book in any way?
__________________
SEPTEMBER 20, 2006: Beverly Slapin's review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear

Editor's Intro to Slapin's Review: American society loves to love Indians and things-Indian. Or rather, things they think are Indian. There’s a long history of exploiting our ways of being. Touching Spirit Bear is another example of that exploitation. You don’t have to buy or read it. There are better books available. To find them, visit the Oyate website.

[Note: This review is used here with permission of the author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]

Mikaelsen, Ben, Touching Spirit Bear. HarperCollins, 2001, 241 pages, grades 5-up; Tlingit

For centuries, restorative justice or circle justice has been practiced in one form or another by many Indian communities. The object is to restore the wellbeing of the victim or the victim’s family, rather than to punish the offender. This is done through a multi-step talking-circle approach, in which the people most affected by the crime, along with community representatives, come together to heal and to try to agree on a fair and reasonable settlement. The sentencing plan involves commitment by the community, family members, and the offender. In 1996, a pilot circle justice project, in conjunction with the criminal justice system, was initiated in Minnesota

In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is an angry, out-of-control Minneapolis teen, the son of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, convicted of viciously beating a classmate. This manipulative and violent young offender is given one more chance: to take part in the circle justice program. Soon Cole finds himself on a remote Alaskan island in Tlingit territory, banished for a year, overseen by a Tlingit parole officer and a traditional elder—and watched by an enormous white “spirit bear.” Here, he resists, wrestles with, and ultimately comes to terms with this chance to take responsibility for what he’s done. 

Ben Mikaelsen’s writing, in places, is evocative and a dead-on accurate portrayal of a troubled teen. After the bear near-fatally mauls Cole, there are excruciatingly detailed descriptions of his struggles to survive by eating worms and bugs, a live mouse and even his own vomit. With broken ribs, legs and an arm, and too weak to get up, he defecates in his pants, and fights to stay alive. It is during this time that Cole begins to understand his vulnerability and his relationship to everything that surrounds him. It is here that his transformation begins. 

All of this having been said, Touching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”

This is all garbage. The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned. It is not about white boys “playing Indian.” It is not about teaching white boys the rituals of another culture. And most especially, it is not about carrying rocks up a hill and performing a bunch of stupid cross-cultural animal impersonation dances.
The author’s own relationship with bears and his supposed almost-close-enough-to-touch encounter with a “three-hundred-pound male Spirit Bear” notwithstanding, Touching Spirit Bear is a terrible book.

—Beverly Slapin

[Update, 5/7/2008: Please read further information about Touching Spirit Bear here and at the TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR section in the column on the right side of this page.]

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can totally understand the focus of the Native American critique of Touching Spirit Bear as violating some of the precepts of the Native American Culture. Still, with that in mind, "Touching Spirit Bear" is the most powerful adolescent novels dealing with teenage anger and hostility. If this novel has even helped one teenager ridden with angst, it makes this book a giant success. Ben Mikaelson's writing style carries tremendous power and self-reflection. Though this book has some flaws in its depiction of the Tinglit culture, it is a must read for so many!

Anonymous said...

I believe you have misunderstood the purpose of the book. It is a powerful book rich in figurative language. Cole IS NOT a white boy playing Indian nor does Mikaelsen pretend to know all about the Tlingit culture. He uses what he has learned from his research to portray a troubled teen's journey toward freedom from anger and despair. He never totally achieves that freedom in this book, and that is intentional for one never really totally loses anger. As Mikaelsen shows, it's all in how we look at life. Shouldn't we all take and savor life one day at a time. Or, did you miss that message?

Anonymous said...

I was sadden to read the negative comment about this book. I've used this book for 9th graders for two years. Each year it has had a positive impact on more than one student. I take my time reading it to them,allowing them time to reflect on their own lives. We all realize I think that this is book of fiction, based on some facts...but with many great truths about life and identity. CS, Jacksonville FL

Anonymous said...

Personally, I thought this was a great book. It really doesn't matter if the author follows all of the Native customs and rituals, it matters if the author can portray his message. And he completely did that. You should have seen that this was a book that has a lot to teach everyone.

Anonymous said...

I personally though the whole thing was just horribly written. Good if it's helped some people, but I was not impressed with any aspect of the characterization or prose.

chandler YA librarian said...

I generally struggle with books written about a culture by those who are` not part of that culture. I know very little about the Native American culture, and therefore don't know what is accurate or not. That said, I hate this book. It is so poorly written to be almost laughable. The characters are`poorly developed, the plotline makes little sense. As I read, I kept thinking, "this is stupid". As a Young Adult Librarian, I read many many books for teens. I can't imagine this book speaking to troubled teens in any way. Bear, on the other hand, may enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I am a 7th grade English teacher and my Pre-AP classes are reading Touching Spirit Bear currently. It is a FICTION book and I may need to be corrected but fiction rarely is exact when it comes to facts. I can tell you this.... my students are so captivated by Cole's story and have been able to relate to him so easily. I will continue to teach using this book but I am sad to hear the negative comments about it. Something students can do is research the Tlingit people and then compare their research to the story, then you can have a conversation about fact and fiction!

Anonymous said...

I am horrified by this book. I am reading this book with my 11 year old son who has been assign this book in class and has been complaining that he is getting sick every time he reads from it. Thinking this was just his way of getting out of reading, I took it upon my self to read with him. After reading Chapters 8-12, I ended up in the bathroom with dry heaves.

I have never read such morbid literature before, shame on any one for thinking this is what an 11 year old should be reading.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this book. As stated before it is a fiction book that is meant to be fiction to teach about overcoming personal trials. I applied what the author taught in this book and I am nearly 30 years old. People need to stop looking for reasons to be offended and look at what the book teaches. I borrowed it from my brother who has his 6th graders read it every year and I just bought it after reading it. One of the best books I have read in a long time!

Anonymous said...

I have used this in my classroom for several years with underperforming students to 9 honors. It connects with students regarding self-responsibility and personal growth. I teach many "Cole Matthews" and am grateful for an opportunity to show that there is hope for change and redemption and this book helps show that "Every saint has a past every sinner has a future."

Anonymous said...

Dry heaves? Please. Let us not be so dramatic. This book is well written. I'm an English teacher and plan on using it with my 6th graders (it's part of the curriculum for our county). Yes the parts describing Cole after he's been attacked are disgusting, but I can't imagine it sending any of my students to the bathroom to vomit. There is a lot of figurative language in the book which is great for getting kids to use their imagination. I can't wait to start this novel with my students.

Shinab said...

HOW TYPICAL OF YOU...
The book uses a justice system which has been around for hundreds of years like the existing cultures and people of the Athebascan. Authentication and research of the facts concerning the peoples of which Mikaelsen writes exist today. How hard or unorthodox would it be to tell the facts, or, by some miracle, have the respect to ask if you can lie about them? The word culture is used too loosely, and respect of a culture is used very little. Those who accept to teach fallacies are oblivious to knowing or having a culture to be proud of and BELIEVE IN.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful critique. I am forever searching for fiction that both appeals to students and respectfully represents native cultures.
While I agree that the depiction of a young man coming to terms with his anger, his responsibility for his actions and his ultimate redemption is valuable for young people to read, I do not agree that the cost of one more bastardization of native traditions is one we should be willing to pay for a compelling plot line.
The message of individual redemption at the expense of collective history and culture is not a fair trade. Let's get books into our students hands that are culturally relevant and just not simply compelling.

Anonymous said...

As someone who works with at risk kids, I have found this book to be more powerful and moving than most (with perhaps the exception of 13 Reasons Why and Hate List). Are there mistakes about the culture? Most likely.... anyone who is not directly part of a culture is bound to make them; however, the message is powerful and so much more important. As others have suggested, it is a simple matter of having students research themselves how the culture and traditions work (kill 2 birds with 1 stone - teach the importance of representing cultures fairly and accurately AND work on valuable reseraching skills using multiple formats of information). If we want to be picky, we can certainly be upset with the depiction of virtually any culture in any book. To the mom upset about the content.... be sure to have your child avoid virutally any literature about war, dystopian societies, adventures, fantasy.... well pretty much anything other than teen girl romance!

eliot amado said...

all of you peeps saying this book is stupid are so selfish. it dosent matter if the book containes some mistakes that nobody is going to notice. look at the meaning or message that the book says. this is such a intelligently made book and am going to highly recommend it. ......although the ending is a bit of a clifhanger..its still a good book.