Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston
The first thing you need to know about this book is that I cried multiple times while reading it. And yes, that is a positive endorsement. It was real, it was compelling, and it was profound. I believe that everyone should read this book.
Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don’t cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team’s summer training camp is Hermione’s last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.
In every class, there’s a star cheerleader and pariah pregnant girl. They’re never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she’s always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn’t the beginning of Hermione Winter’s story and she’s not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.
I feel so strongly about this book, we’re going to have a Book Club Reading and Twitter Discussion. Here’s the info:
So here are some of the things I like about EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR. Though I would avoid this section until after you read the book if you want to avoid spoilers.
1. Cheerleading as a Real Sport & Non Stereotyped Cheerleaders
Hermoine and Polly are best friends and co-captain of their cheerleading squad. And they take cheerleading very seriously; they recognize it for the sport that it is and are in it to win it. These are not cheerleader stereotypes, they are intelligent, committed athletes who work hard and value teamwork and competition.
2. #SVYALit Discussion (Sexual Violence in YA Lit)
Our story opens up at cheerleading camp the summer before senior year. It’s the last year and they want to make it count. But then a horrific crime happens: Hermione is drugged and raped by a fellow camper. Everything that follows highlights the intense emotional and legal journey that Hermione takes as she wrestles with the fact that a crime has been committed against her, even though she has no real memory of that crime because of the drug that she was given.
3. Female Friendship Done Right
Exit, Pursued by a Bear (from here on out referred to as EPB), is an intense emotional journey. There are rumors and there are whispers in the hallway, but Hermione is also fiercely supported by some key characters in the book, including her best friend Polly and her parents. Polly makes it very clear every step of the way that not only will she stand by Hermione through every step of this emotional journey with her best friend, but that she will not allow anyone to suggest that Hermione is in any way responsible for what happened to her. There is one scene where Hermione and Polly are being interviewed by the school paper and Polly says every thing we are thinking about rape culture and the way we talk to and about rape victims. Reading it was a sort of catharsis for me.
The friendship between Hermione and Polly is strong and fierce. It is hands down one of the best parts of the book and one of my new favorite friendships in YA lit.
4. Complexly Realized Parents
There are lots of other great characters in this book as well. Hermione’s parents are strong, committed (and still together!) parents who work hard to navigate their own emotions while taking care of their daughter. These are the type of parents you don’t see very often in YA literature. They are complex and compelling; through them you get little glimpses of how Hermione’s experiences affect not only her, but the people that love her. These are perhaps my favorite parents in YA lit ever.
5. #FSYALit (Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit)
There is another small character that really stood out to me, that of a pastor. At the beginning of our book Hermione goes to him and asks him to please stop asking the church to pray for her because she wants to stop being the focus of attention so that she can deal with her issues more privately. They have a incredibly profound discussion and I loved the way this spiritual leader was characterized and how respectful he was of Hermione and the choices she was being forced to make.
RED ALERT *****This Section Has HUGE Spoilers******
As a result of her rape, Hermione ends up being pregnant. Johnston does some remarkable things here that almost never get discussed in YA lit and certainly not so explicitly and without stigma: not only does Hermione choose to have an abortion, but she is supported by the people in her life in this decision and the entire process is depicted in the text. In the end, Hermione feels no guilt, only relief that she has a renewed sort of ownership over her body that this boy who raped her took away from her.
HERE ENDS THE BIG SPOILERS
Johnston takes great pains to meticulously show us all the medical, legal and emotional ramifications of Hermione’s rape. From the police officer who is working on her case to the therapist who is helping her process the emotions of it, it seems as if Johnston has taken great care to make sure readers are able to walk this difficult emotional journey with Hermione with realistic and unflinching honesty. This is not an easy read, but it is a good read and, I feel, a very important one. Hermione gets some closure that most victims of rape don’t get in real life, which is very satisfying as a reader. In a time when we as a culture are really discussing rape, rape culture and female empowerment, THIS is an important and timely read for us all.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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