He opens his review with this excerpt from Black-Eyed Peas "Where is the Love?"
"Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo', whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we spreading animosity."
He goes on to praise Ghost of Spirit Bear, but again and again, I come back to the lyrics he opened the review with...
"Wrong information always shown by the media" --- That describes, perfectly, the way that Native peoples are portrayed in the movies, cartoons, advertisements, commercial products, and, of course, children's books.
"Wrong information" also perfectly describes Mikaelsen's first book, so it is puzzling that Partington uses that phrase to describe the book. Either Richie hasn't read criticism of Native imagery in Touching Spirit Bear, or, like so many others, he thinks a critique of Mikaelsen's misuse and misrepresentation of Tlingit people doesn't matter.
Touching Spirit Bear relies on and draws heavily from Mikaelsen's ideas about American Indians. His writing includes stereotypes, old and new. 'Old' meaning those older ones that put American Indians in the same class as animals; 'new' meaning the new-age use of Native spirituality.
Chapter 1 opens with Cole in a boat on his way to spend a year on an island in Alaska. This is "banishment" and the outcome, we are told later, of Circle Justice. With Cole are two men, both of them Tlingit. One is Garvey, who is "built like a bulldog with lazy eyes" (p. 3). The other is Edwin who "stared forward with a steely patience, like a wolf waiting" (p. 4)
Bulldog? Wolf? Is this a style Mikaelsen uses to describe all his characters? Here's how he describes Cole:
"He was an innocent-looking, baby-faced fifteen-year-old from Minneapolis..." (p.5)
And here's Peter, the kid Cole beat up:
"...the skinny red-haired boy," (p. 7)
"His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone" (p. 9)
"His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper" (p. 9).
Bullheaded is certainly derived from an animal, but the term is common usage for someone who is determined to do what he wants, regardless of what others might think or want. Given that, I think it is different from the ways that Garvey and Edwin are described.
It is through Garvey that Cole learns about Circle Justice. Based on my reading about Circle Justice, Mikaelsen (through Garvey) does a reasonably accurate job of laying it out on pages 10-12. Where Mikaelsen goes astray is when Cole gets banished. Several meetings of the Circle have taken place, but Cole isn't making any progress. In frustration he tells the people at the meeting: "Send me someplace where I'm not in your face and can't hurt anyone. But why do I have to go to jail?" (p. 55).
Garvey replies "I'm a native Tlingit," he said. "I was raised in Southeast Alaska. It is possible I could make arrangements to have Cole banished to a remote island on the Inland Passage" (p. 55-56).
This banishment to an island comes straight out of the pages of the newspapers in 1994. "Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax" ran in the New York Times. Reading it is much like reading the early part of Touching Spirit Bear. Except for the part of the article that reads:
"Now it turns out there is no such thing as banishment in Tlingit culture, according to tribal leaders and elders in Alaska."
Hmmm... That gives me pause. Let' see... the article came out in 1994. HarperCollins published Touching Spirit Bear in 2001. Apparently the book wasn't vetted. Maybe they don't do that with fiction? MAYBE THEY SHOULD!!! Course, I know of two books that experts critiqued prior to publication, but the writer/publisher chose to ignore the suggestions (those two are Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground, and one of those Indian in the Cupboard books by Lynn Reid Banks).
Course, the book reading world loved Touching Spirit Bear! It's on all manner of "Best Books" lists, it has gotten many awards and glowing reviews. The Horn Book Guide is the only major review journal that panned it, giving it a 5 (out of 6) and calling it "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." I'm not sure what the redeeming quality is. "Marginal" and "seriously flawed" are dead on, though.
If you're an editor, get fiction manuscripts reviewed by experts, and when the experts point out problems, listen to the problems. Do not assume that the research the author has done is sufficient. It is likely that he/she is ill-informed.
Be mindful of the sources that you use when creating/writing/reviewing a story with Native characters or content. Today, more than ever, it is possible to find material written by Native people. You don't have to rely on biased and outdated material to do your research!
I know---there's a lot of people out there who are huge fans of Touching Spirit Bear. Seems there's a strong feeling that this book helps kids who are bullies. It may do that, but it also helps everyone stoke their incorrect stereotypical ideas about who Native people are. For that reason, I cannot and do not recommend it.
(1) Touching Spirit Bear has been written about twice before on this website. See Beverly Slapin's review and a piece I wrote about comments posted to her review "Reaction to Slapin's review."
(2) Also see resources that can be used to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear.
(3) Read Ben Mikaelsen's response here.