A flashback explains to us how Cole got to Alaska in the first place. A native of Minnesota, he had been in the juvenile justice system for quite some time, and his wealthy and well-connected parents usually would get him out of trouble with the law. Recently, however, Cole broke into a store illegally, but when he bragged about it to one of his classmates, Peter Driscal, Peter turned him in. In revenge, Cole beat Peter up very badly, causing Peter head trauma and a permanent speech problem.
Cole was taken back into juvenile detention. When Garvey, his juvenile detention officer, proposes that he choose Circle Justice instead of the possibility of being tried in an adult court, Cole immediately starts looking into the option.
The group of three arrives on the island, and Edwin warns Cole that he could possibly die on the island if he doesn’t find food and keep warm in the winter. Cole seems unfazed and plans his escape.
He is first told of the Spirit Bear that roams in these areas, and Cole says that if he saw the Spirit Bear, he would kill it. Edwin gives Cole an “at.óow,” a Tlingit Indian blanket that symbolizes trust and friendship. As Edwin and Garvey leave, having set up the area for Cole, Cole begins to reminisce about how he had to feign his remorse to Garvey and to the members of the circle in order to get approval for Circle Justice. When the scene flashes back to the island, Cole is covering the entire shelter his parents and Garvey had provided for him in gas.
He then lights a match and burns the shelter, a symbol of any attachment to those who he felt didn’t really care about him. As he sees everything go up in flames, he realizes the error of his rash choice.
As Cole sullenly stares into the burning flames, he begins to remember his relationship with Garvey. Cole explains to Garvey in this flashback scene how much he resents his parents, especially after their divorce. He reveals how they drink a lot and feel that nothing he does is good enough for them. When his father drinks, he hits Cole repeatedly and abuses him in a drunken rage. Back on the island, the fire is burning as brightly as ever, and Cole decides to swim to nearby islands in search of others who can give him a ride out of this wilderness.
Cole is still struggling to swim to another island in the freezing water. He recounts in his head the various circles that he had to participate in before heading off to the island. These include a “Healing Circle,” a “Circle of Justice,” a “Circle of Understanding,” and even a “Sentencing Circle.” Frustrated with so many circles, Cole protests to Garvey, who wisely responds, “Life is a circle.” The bulk of the chapter describes the “Hearing Circle,” which was organized in the public library with the input of the entire community. It is an interesting event where community members come and hold hands in a type of prayer group in order to ask for Cole’s healing and justice. Each member holds a feather in turn to speak and then passes it on to others in the group. Present are community members interested in improving safety, Cole’s parents who are bewildered about his situation, and Peter Driscal—the boy who Cole beat up—who is particularly distraught. For the first time, it seems that Cole is questioning why he is there.
The scene returns from the flashback of the Healing Circle back to the scene of Cole swimming away from the shore. Cole realizes how futile his efforts are when he gets a leg cramp and notices that the incoming tide is pushing him back to the shore. His legs hit the rocky bottom of the shore as he is washed up, and he collapsed on the shore, in pain and without shelter.
As he struggles to get up, he sees a white bear: the Spirit Bear. He was intimidated by how fearless the bear was, and he even threw a rock at it to see if it would get scared. However, the bear remains motionless until it suddenly disappears. Strangely, in the remains of the fire, the at.óow remains, and Cole puts it over his shoulders. Cole keeps going over the scenes of the Circles back home with community members, and the chapter closes with a scene from one of the circles where Cole yells out publicly and in front of his parents that his father abuses him physically.
The flashback to his father and the circle continues, and all of the Circle Justice meetings continue to haunt him and cause him pain as he reflects on his current predicament on the island. Cole and his father have a very public argument about whether Cole has indeed been beaten. The Keeper, or leader of the circle, continues to insist that only the person with the feather may speak, and so she gives the feather to Cole to respond to his father’s comments. Cole insists that he has been abused, and he hands the feather to his mom so that she may confirm this fact. His mother, however, is too afraid to speak, and simply passes the feather on. The scene moves on to Peter and his family. Peter’s family speaks of how Peter has speech and coordination problems and wakes up at night with vivid nightmares because of Cole’s attack.
The three-hour Healing Circle ends, and Cole is escorted out of the room in handcuffs. On the way, Garvey asks Cole’s father what his son’s birthday is, and he doesn’t even remember. Back on the island, Cole moves to a stream nearby for water and finds some hot coals, which he uses to fan a fire to keep him warm. Anger continues to bubble in his mind, as he remembers scenes of his father hitting him. One particular scene comes to mind—the only time his mother defended him. In it, Cole arrived late one night, and his father beat him with a belt, even with the metal portion of the belt. His mother weakly defends him, and his father threatens to beat her too. Then Cole remembers how after the fifth circle, the solution had been proposed to send Cole somewhere far and isolated so that he could not hurt others. Garvey suggested his native land of Alaska, where there are many abandoned islands, and the members of the circle agree that banishment could be a good option.
The scene returns back completely to the island. Cole observes the orca whales just off the shore, and the Spirit Bear appears once more. Cole now prepares a sharpened branch as a spear along with his small knife for the next time the Spirit Bear appears. He has been on the island for one full day, and that night he has a very fitful sleep. He wakes up constantly fearing that the bear is near him, but the bear is nowhere to be found. In the morning, he finds food by scaring away seagulls and stealing the fish that they had caught. Cole planned to try again to escape the island when the tide receded in the afternoon, but before he had the chance, he sees the Spirit Bear at the intersection of the stream and the bay. He rushes the bear and approaches it closely. He aims the spear at the Spirit Bear.
The action of Cole’s Spirit Bear encounter continues. Cole thrusts the spear towards the bear, but the animal easily deflects it. The bear easily strikes Cole over the head with a powerful blow. The bear bites into Cole’s thigh, scratches Cole’s chest, and lifts him over his head. As a final act of domination, the Bear places his paws on Cole’s chest and cracks his ribs. Then, the bear stands over Cole in the pouring rain, and Cole can only move his left arm and his head, unable to lift himself. Every other part of his body is broken and in pain. The bear slowly shifts away as seagulls a few steps away fight over torn pieces of Cole’s flesh. Cole realizes that the bear is the only thing that has ever been unafraid of him. A bloody bone protruded from his right arm, and his hand was stuffed with thistles from a Devil’s Club plant that he had grabbed while trying to escape the bear. Cole, during this time, feels powerless and truly “imprisoned.” He contemplates death. He vomits up the fish he had for lunch and loses consciousness. He awakes to find himself barely alive, still immobilized, and more powerless and alone than he has ever felt before. He comments that even in jail, he had had some safety and comfort, but not so on this island.
Cole is still lying on the ground, having been mauled by the bear, but he begins to become more aware of his surroundings. He sees a nest with sparrows, and a mother sparrow is feeding her children. Cole is angered by this kind of affection shown between mother and offspring, and he feels more alone and uncared for than ever. In the freezing rain, Cole craves the at.óow blanket, but he cannot reach it.
During a nighttime thunderstorm, Cole again sights the Spirit Bear fifty feet away during a flash of lightning. In an instant, the bear disappears, but Cole fears that he will return to kill him. The storm continued to rage without the presence of the bear, and trees are split in two by lightning. The chapter ends with Cole realizing that the tree with the birds have been struck down by lightning, and he shows this first sign of compassion.
Cole continues to struggle for life on the ground following the mauling of the Spirit Bear. Cole’s embarrassment and weakness is further exposed when he cannot hold back his desire to defecate. He soils himself right where he is and has to sit in the midst of his own waste, immobilized. He looks out and sees that two of the sparrows from the tree have died. Cole makes the firm decision to live at this point, and attempts to try to feed himself with the grass around him. He also resorts to eating worms from the ground for sustenance. Mosquitoes swarm over his body, and he even catches a mouse as the chapter closes.
Cole continues to struggle to keep the mouse, and before it is dead, he pulls it to his mouth and starts chewing it until he crushes its skull with its teeth. He then proceeds to eat his own vomit—the fish from several days ago. The Spirit Bear appears once again, and Cole trembles with helplessness. The bear starts again walking towards Cole.
The bear mysteriously stops just short of Cole, and then he turns around and walks off into the distance. At this point, Cole becomes quite delusional and imagines himself as a bird in a nest, struggling to fly. Then, as he comes out of this delirium, he sees the Spirit Bear inches from his head, above him. Instead of trying to spit at him or yell at him, Cole instead decides to rub the bear’s shoulder and white fur coat, grabbing a tuft of white hair and putting it in his pocket. The bear does not attack, and there is a sense of trust between them. Then, Cole sees the bear walk over to the stream and enter the water to swim away towards the bay. From that moment forward, Cole begins to appreciate the beauty of the scene around him, the plants, the seagulls, and the seals and other sea creatures. As Cole drifts away in pain and slumber, he hears voices around him as he is disoriented. It turns out that it is Edwin, who has brought him to his skiff and is taking him to safety to heal. Garvey also was there with him, calling him “Champ” as he always did. In the Drake nursing station, everyone was astounded that he had even survived, but Cole simply declares, “I am okay,” despite his horrible state.
Cole is with nurse Rosey in the city of Drake, but there is no medivac plane available to get Cole to a real hospital. Cole again had vivid dreams of his family and friends helping him but also taunting him for being so weak and helpless. Rosey and Garvey talk to Cole about the healing power of serving others, as Cole remains bewildered at why these two spend so much time helping him. When the medivac plane arrives the next day, Edwin and Garvey ask Cole what happened on the island, and Edwin simply can’t believe that there was a real Spirit Bear on the island because normally they live hundreds of mile south of Drake. While Cole has the tuft of white hair in his jean pocket, he commits to telling the truth and asking the two men to trust him. When they are not looking, he throws away the white tufts of hair. The world will have to take Cole at his word from now on.
This chapter begins part two of the novel, and it is set six months after the date that the medivac plane took Cole to a hospital. Cole still had a lot of pain, and he had limited use of his right hand because of the bear attack. The reader learns that Cole’s father has been arrested and charged with child abuse for what he has done to Cole. Garvey and Cole’s mom are with him at the hospital as he is being led to the juvenile detention center.
Even though out of the hospital, Cole goes through months of physical therapy to regain even a little use of his limbs. Cole and his mother have a heart-warming reconciliation. She apologizes for not defending Cole against his father, and she says that she has stopped drinking. Cole comments that this is the first time that she has ever really opened up to him, and the two hug. The scene changes to the Justice Circle, where almost all of the former members of the circle return—with the notable absence of Cole’s father and Peter’s family. The consensus of the members of the circle is that Cole broke his contract with the circle, so he should be returned to the criminal justice system. However, at that moment Edwin walks in, freshly arrived from Alaska.
The circle continues with Cole giving his explanation for why he acted as he did on the island, as everyone including Edwin sit in to listen. Cole is honest with the group and explains that he only went to the island to escape jail, and his mother then explains how she feels that he has truly changed. Edwin is the last to speak, and explains to the circle that Cole has at least had a change in direction if not a complete change of heart. The crux of the decision lies on whether there was actually a Spirit Bear on the island, or if Cole is just lying again. Edwin declares that a group of fishermen claimed to see a Spirit Bear off of the island where Cole was stationed a day after Cole left the island. Still, this is not enough for the Keeper or Peter’s lawyer, so Cole is left to wait the final verdict on whether he will go to real jail or not. Over several weeks the Circle keeps meeting without Cole, and at the end of the chapter, Edwin and Garvey declare that they have secured Cole’s custody to return him to the island and try again for the process of healing.
Cole returns to Southeast Alaska. As per Edwin’s request, all of the costs of the trip are funded by selling Cole’s possessions such as his dirt bike and bicycle. This trip is truly his last chance, and he has sacrificed much for it. Edwin and Garvey agree to stay on the island for two days in order to give time for Cole to build the shelter. When they ask him to prepare food for them, Cole hands them cold hot dogs. Edwin and Garvey then go into a speech about how “life is a hot dog.” Whereas Cole merely sees the hot dog as food, Garvey cuts the hot dog into three pieces, shares it, and makes many toasts and much merriment out of the occasion. The lesson of making the most out of very little is supposed to make Cole think about how he could make his time on the island a celebration.
The next day, Edwin and Garvey wake Cole up early after he has had a restless night without much sleep and with many dreams and anxieties. They go to the stream and Edwin declares that they will go swimming in a freezing pond to teach Cole a lesson. He makes Cole dip completely into the water shoulder-high and then asks him to break a stick, whose left side represents anger and right side represents happiness. The lesson implied is that if you focus on anger and try to break the left side off, a left side of the stick always remains. Edwin tells Cole how when he was banished to the island he would dip himself everyday in the freezing pond and try to focus on the happy end of the stick, not the angry end.
They go back to the camp and notice whales breaching off the shore. Cole set off to build his shelter all on his own without the help of Edwin or Garvey. Cole’s arms are blistered, and he resents how Edwin and Garvey make him do absolutely everything—from cooking, to washing the dishes. Since they had seen whales in the morning, Edwin insists that they do a whale dance. Edwin and Garvey, in turn, danced around the fire making whale-breaching motions with their head and arms. Cole reluctantly agrees and while dancing notices how whales migrate but do not have a home, and he feels understanding with them. The next morning, they again go into the freezing pond for the anger exercise. Cole reluctantly agrees. Edwin then continues afterwards to take Cole to meet his “ancestors.” The exercise involves taking a large “ancestor rock” representing the ancestors up a slope, and Edwin tells Cole how these ancestors have many lessons to teach him.
The chapter again begins with an animal sighting as Edwin and Cole return from their morning lessons. This time, it is a wolf sighting. Garvey insists that this night they will do a “wolf dance.” The rest of the day is consumed by Cole constructing the shelter again, and he becomes irritated. In a fit of anger, Cole tells Edwin and Garvey that he won’t cook them food or do the wolf dance. They threaten to return him to Minnesota, since he had broken part of the agreement, and then Cole immediately returns to do everything they ask. The two men retire to the tent while Cole does the wolf dance on his own. The lesson of the wolf dance is “that you need the help of others, like a wolf pack.” The next morning, Cole is instructed to go on his own to the pond to soak in the freezing water and reflect on his anger. Then, he goes to the mountain to carry the “ancestor rock” up the mountain and then release his anger downwards as he rolled down the rock. Just as he finishes these soothing exercises, determined to change his life again, he sees the Spirit Bear in the woods.
Cole returns to tell Edwin and Garvey of his morning, and he nearly finishes constructing the shelter, installing a door and windows. The two adults are so impressed that they tell Cole that they are leaving him the next morning. Cole prepares an extra special meal for them as their last dinner together. Since Cole saw the Spirit Bear, he proposes to do a Spirit Bear dance as the last dance before the two leave. Cole’s spirit bear dance reenacts his mauling in its entirety before Edwin and Garvey. Before departing, Garvey presents Cole with a small hunting knife.
Cole is finally alone on the island, and he focuses on keeping himself busy as much as possible. He occupied himself building furniture for his shelter. Edwin makes his first visit back four days later, and Cole seems to be doing well still. When Cole finds a huge washed-up pole, he decides to make a totem pole carving out of it. However, the log brings the possibility of making a canoe for escape, and Cole skips his morning soak in the freezing pond as he contemplates this possibility with anger in his heart for the first time since Edwin and Garvey departed.
On his next visit, Edwin sees that Cole had started to make a canoe but had instead crafted part of a totem pole, and Edwin is impressed that Cole has chosen the right course. Cole signals his first signs of feeling compassion for Peter, who Edwin reports is not doing well. Cole dances an eagle dance, but Edwin says that he is not ready for an anger dance, the one that would heal him the most.
Cole continues to busy himself making a totem pole with an inscribed eagle and then an inscribed wolf. He continues to search for the Spirit Bear on the island, masking his human scent to make him “invisible” by wearing clean clothes and rubbing ashes and branches over his body. Cole meets a beaver in the pond, does a beaver dance, and carves a beaver into the totem pole. Weeks pass with Cole continuing to be busy and to work hard on the totem pole, his schoolwork, and on finding the Spirit Bear again. Still, there is no sign of the Spirit Bear. Cole asks himself, how could he become invisible to the Spirit Bear, and what does he have left to be able to heal?
Cole realizes that to be invisible he has to clear his mind. He had to become invisible “not to the world, but to himself.” He heads to the shore to clear his mind, and when he does so, the Spirit Bear appears by the shore. The sight of the bear is only fleeting, and it disappears almost as quickly as it had appeared. That night, Cole feels ready to do the dance of anger that Edwin had been telling him about. It naturally comes to him as he lets out a scream and dances around the fire. He again relived the bear attack, and he cries asking forgiveness for attaching Peter. He then forgives those who have hurt him, and he cries profusely. As the scene closes with Cole collapsing, exhausted, crying, halfway through the night, the Spirit Bear looks on, unbeknownst to Cole.
When Edwin comes again, Cole tells him that during the dance of anger he had learned to forgive, because if one doesn’t forgive, one gives the other person control over your emotions. Edwin reminds him that he needs to find a way to make up for Peter, either by helping him or by helping someone else, because otherwise the pain will remain forever. Then, Cole asks Edwin if this is why Edwin and Garvey help him, and Edwin says yes. Much time lapses, and suddenly Cole is facing the brutal winter. He uses his stockpiled firewood and rarely goes out. He even gives up his morning soak in the freezing pond and carrying the ancestor rock. He replaces that with other routine activities and even celebrates Christmas with a small pine tree he finds in the woods. The only daunting task left was to find the last image to carve into his totem pole. One day in March, Edwin tells him that Peter has attempted suicide, and Cole is horrified. All he can do for the next days as he goes again to the freezing pond is to think about Peter. The chapter ends with a desperate situation, as Edwin comes back in the skiff to say that Peter has attempted suicide again and that his parents are desperate. Cole says that Peter should come to the island to find hope.
Cole starts by telling Edwin that he thinks Peter should come to the island with him to heal. Edwin questions whether Cole has really changed, and Cole answers that he would stay on the island a lifetime if it meant that Peter would get better and feel better. Edwin leaves and returns two weeks later with Peter Driscal on the skiff. They had followed Cole’s instructions. Along with Peter came his parents as well as Garvey.
Edwin retells the story of the past two weeks. The circle had been meeting for hours to decide how best to help Peter and Cole. The Driscal family was hesitant to go to Alaska, but they realized that they had no other hope. Edwin then tells Cole to recount to the Driscals everything that had transpired on the island in excruciating detail, so that they would know what kind of a transformation had come about inside of him. Cole reveals for the first time to the whole group that he can’t heal until he helps Peter heal.
Peter’s parents decide to leave the next morning, since they feel that Peter is safe with Garvey’s protection, but Mr. Driscal sternly warns Cole that if he touches Peter, he’ll go to jail for sure. Peter still doesn’t want to speak to Cole, but after Cole offers him a candy bar, he takes it. Garvey and Cole chat for a while about life back in Minneapolis. Cole’s father has filed for Cole’s custody, but Garvey assures Cole that he will never win it. Cole’s mother is also said to be doing well. Since Peter is still afraid of Cole, Cole has to sleep in a cold tent 100 yards away from the shelter as Garvey and Peter sleep in the warmth. The next morning, Peter and Garvey accompany Cole to the freezing pond, although only Cole gets in, and then they carry the ancestor rock up the hill again as well. Days go by without any change in Peter, but eventually he rolls the ancestor rock down the hill and attempts to enter the freezing pond. At the end of the chapter, Peter invites Cole to sleep inside of the warm shelter instead of the cold tent.
Peter begins to bully Cole by mudding up his sleeping bag, destroying some of Cole’s carvings, and doing other things to annoy him. Cole offers him a totem pole of his own to carve, and Peter reluctantly accepts it. Cole is particularly angered when Peter denies that Cole was attacked by an actual Spirit Bear and says it was probably just a black bear. At the end of the chapter, Peter carves back the bear that he had scratched off of Cole’s totem pole, and Cole is so impressed by Peter’s carving skills that he asks Peter to teach him how to carve better.
In this final chapter, Peter first proposes that he and Cole go soak in the freezing pond alone together. On the way, Peter starts pushing Cole after an angry dialogue. Cole refuses to fight back, which only makes Peter attack him harder—punching, kicking, and scratching Cole until he falls to the ground. Cole doesn’t do one thing to fight back. Upon seeing Cole so weak and laying hurt on the ground, Peter falls to his knees and starts crying. Just as Cole goes to hug him, the Spirit Bear appears. Peter is amazed and shocked that he appeared, and understands Cole’s concept of being “invisible.” The two return to the camp and work together to carve the last space on Cole’s totem pole. Garvey comes out and is shocked to see that they have chosen to carve a simple circle in the last space. Cole’s healing is complete, and he gives the at.óow to Peter, indicating his trust in their relationship.