Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Published March 15, 2016
After my last few YA contemporary reads, which I really enjoyed but felt were a little fluffy and perhaps aimed at a younger audience than me, Exit, Pursued by a Bear was a very welcome change of pace and I absolutely loved it.
The novel is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and draws its title from the play’s most famous stage direction. Protagonist Hermione Winters has everything going for her. Alongside best friend Polly, she’s co-captain of her school’s cheerleading team, she has a boyfriend, and she’s about to enter her senior year, but at the team’s summer training camp, someone slips something in her drink and she blacks out. Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with the lead up to, and the aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione figures out how to move on from here.
Although Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with serious themes, including date rape drugs, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and abortion, it differs from other rape survivor stories in a few ways.
First of all, and most importantly, Hermione has an excellent support system in place that helps her through. She has parents who are protective but supportive of her decisions, who want to be there for her but also know when to take a step backwards, even when it hurts them to do so. She has a best friend who would go to Hell and back for her, who is her champion, and who will happily fight anyone who dares to so much as look at Hermione the wrong way. She has a therapist who is quirky but effective, letting her come to terms with and remember what’s happened to her in her own time and without pushing, and she has a cheerleading team who, after some initial awkwardness and a few poor decisions, completely have her back. This support system is part of what prevents the book from being a tragedy.
The rest comes from Hermione herself. Rape is often about power and control. The use of date rape drugs in particular leaves Hermione unable to remember any details about her attacker or the assault itself that she can provide the police with. Her rapist takes away her power, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear is primarily a book about taking back power and regaining agency.
Hermione is a wonderful protagonist. Intelligent, popular, and courageous, she is determined not to be defined by what’s happened to her and to move forward with her life. Although she does have trauma to work through and the attack does change things for Hermione (she stays off of social media, is triggered by the scent of pine, etc.) she is also determined to keep living. Hermione continues her cheerleading, she plans to go to college and live in residence away from home, she doesn’t fall apart. There is nothing wrong with stories where the victim does fall apart, these stories are every bit as valid as Hermione’s in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, but I love that this is a story about strength, about support systems, and about a girl who takes back power and does so in her own time.
This is not to say that the book sugarcoats the assault or the aftermath. Johnston doesn’t dance around the slut-shaming and victim-blaming that initially follows sexual assault, but much of this is shut down early in the novel. The overall picture I got was one that shows the pain, the helplessness, and the fear Hermione feels and, importantly, the impact that Hermione’s assault has on those around her (from her parents, to the friends who blame themselves for not spotting what was happening, to the inexperienced police officer whose career path she influences), but that also shows the bravery of the main character and the excellent support system she has in place.
I also loved the way the book ended, putting the power back in Hermione’s hands in a way that is more than just symbolic. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is an insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma after an assault, and features a protagonist and other characters who I cared about deeply. I highly recommend it to all.