Title: Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Author: E.K. Johnston
Published: Dutton Books 2016
Recommended if you like: Cheerleading, hopeful survivor stories, Shakespeare, Veronica Mars
Read-a-Like: All the Rage, Speak, Open Road Summer
Rating: 6 out of 5 Golden Bear Mascots
First Line: I start running after school.
Y’all, I LOVED this book. Like I LOOOOVED it. I read it the second I got my grubby paws on an ARC in December and have been waiting for it to release so I can gush about it to everyone I know.
It’s hopeful and heartwarming and rage inducing and sad in all the right ways and at all the right times.
So let’s begin by declaring this book the Winner of the Best Title Ever Award, because, hello? Perfection.
The title is a famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s not-so-famous play A Winter’s Tale. The play is still performed, but is lesser known than, say, Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet. In Bear, Johnston has combined the essential characters and relationships of the play, with a Veronica Mars-meets-Bring it On feeling and a situation that is all too common in our society.
Hermione Winters (yes, this play is also where Rowling found her famous heroine’s name) is co-captain of the cheerleading squad at a school where the cheerleaders don’t just cheer for the star athletes, they are the star athletes. The book opens the summer before her senior year – her last cheer camp- spent with her best friend Polly, her boyfriend Leon, and the rest of the squad along with some new friends from other schools. But at the dance on the last night of camp, Hermione is drugged and raped, and found half submerged in the lake the next morning.
I’ve been an enormous fan of Johnston’s since discovering her debut The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, a story in which she populated the contemporary world with dragons. I eagerly read A Thousand Nights in which she turned a girl into a god. But, as she’s stated several times, this is really her fantasy novel.
It’s a fantasy novel because it imagines a world where a girl who is a victim of a heinous crime is universally believed and supported. After the assault, the adults in Hermione’s life step up and do exactly what they’re supposed to. Her parents, her pastor, the officer handling her case, all treat her with compassion and respect and support each of her decisions along the way. Her cheerleading coach, Caledon, is one of my favorite characters in the book. Her reaction to the despicable and yet sadly typical rumor mill that runs at the high school for a short time is to tell Hermione,
“A lot of people are going to say some truly stupid things to you in the near future, and if you happen to punch any of them in the face in front of me, I’m not going to do anything about it.”
There are, of course, a few exceptions to this magical world in which everyone does what they’re supposed to. Rumors make their way around school before Hermione’s friends can squash them. Hermione’s boyfriend, Leon, quickly becomes her ex, after being an all-around ass hole about the situation. He spends all of camp being jealous that he’s not the center of Hermione’s world, and then when she’s attacked, he feels it wouldn’t have happened if she’d been dancing with him, “like she was supposed to be.” He’s a sadly realistic teenage boy who feels entitled to everything he wants. He does eventually stop being a total wanker but one of my favorite things that Johnston has done, is to refuse to make his eventual redemption a key point in the story. Yes he comes around, and that’s good for him, we suppose, but Hermione (and Johnston) Absolutely Will Not let his journey take center stage. Hermione is not the teachable moment that helps him become a better person. This isn’t his story, it’s hers. No one will steal that from her.
Hermione’s friends and teammates – male and female – also rally around her. Flanking her in the halls on their way to class, making sure she’s okay at the Halloween dance. Cracking stupid jokes to deflect tension. Offering to rip heads off if they ever catch the guy who did it. Hermione learns to trust the boys on her team again, and when one of them asks her to the dance, he completely understands when she says she just can’t yet.
But my favorite person in the book is Polly. Polly how do I love you, let me count the ways. Polly is the best friend we all wish we had. The best friend we hope we are, or hope we can become. We should all be so lucky.
Polly is there to remind Hermione that “it’s no one’s fault but the bastard who raped you,” when Hermione needs to hear it. Who tells her that she sure as hell should make every male at that camp do a DNA test, and it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable or inconvenienced they feel about it. Who bares her teeth at the reporter who asks what Hermione feels she should have done differently to prevent the assault. Polly is all these things, the superhero Hermione depends on, but she’s not just the sidekick – she has her own life as well. She starts dating a girl (hurray for the gays!). She picks a university. She comes out to her parents. And as the school year goes on, Hermione and Polly let themselves start to learn to have space between them, since they’ll be miles apart for college. It’s a remarkable example of growing up and the healthy development of best friendship.
*****Here there be spoilers*****
Another element that I love in this book is both empowering and, sadly, fantastical. And that is the support Hermione has as she gets an abortion after the rape. Hermione is allowed by the people in her life to not feel guilty, to not feel traumatized for making what she knows is the best decision for her. Literally every character in the book who is aware the abortion takes place supports her unreservedly. The experience wasn’t cloaked in euphemism or put behind an unspoken white fade-away. We held Hermione’s hand through it and felt just fine on the other side of it. And that is something I find incredibly, invaluably important.
****End of spoilers****
This book brought me to tears multiple times because of the empowering and hopeful message packed into every word. No one should ever have to go through the trauma of sexual assault, but if you do, I hope you have people like Reverand Rob, Officer Plummer, Coach Caledon, Dr. Hutt, Hermione’s parents, Tig, Amy, Mallory and Polly in your life to help you through it, remind you it’s not your fault, and help to nail the bastard who did it.
We can heal, this book promises us with every page. We can overcome. And on the other side of this, there is hope. There is love. There is life.
Verdict: Read it yesterday!