Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston

Exit-Pursued-by-a-Bear-E.-K.-Johnston

“I love you,” Polly says suddenly when I’m almost to the door.

“I know,” I say.

Hermione Winters has been a flyer. She’s been captain of her cheerleading team. The envied girlfriend and the undisputed queen of her school. Now it’s her last year and those days and those labels are fading fast. In a few months she’ll be a different person. She thinks she’s ready for whatever comes next.

But then someone puts something in her drink at a party, and in an instant she finds herself wearing new labels, ones she never imagined:

Victim. Survivor. That raped girl.

Even though this was never the future she imagined, one essential thing remains unchanged: Hermione can still call herself Polly Olivier’s best friend, and that may be the truest label of all. — [X]

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston is another must-read that I encountered while picking out books for this month’s theme. It probably wasn’t the best idea ever to read this one right after I’d read Far From You by Tess Sharpe, but despite the tears and not-so-subtle gasping, I have to say, these two books work very well together. They are both about violence against women, but each handles the issue rather differently. Just something to consider. Now, on to the review.

For those not in the know, the title of this novel refers to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by a bear”, from The Winter’s Tale. Johnston’s book, while it certainly follows its own story, does adapt some details from the play. The names, for one. Hermione’s oratory skills, for another. However, while Queen Hermione is accused of infidelity, is thrown in prison, has her newborn taken from her, and having heard of her son’s death, meets her untimely demise*, Johnston’s Hermione Winters is nobody’s tragic tale. Her school has lost one member of their student body to death or pregnancy for the last three years. Hermione vows to break this curse. A despite everything, she does.

Once more, I find myself wanting to talk about the cover first. The cover is everything to me. I already made my feelings on it clear when we talked about it in The Cover Wars, but having read the book, I love it even more. The story behind this photograph left me grinning like a fool, and I would not want to deprive other readers of this experience. So, let me just state for the record: perfect cover is perfect, and leave it at that. But! What’s even more perfect, though, is that once you remove the cover off the hardbound, you’ll notice tiny, metallic pink (berry?) print on the blue binding. On top, it says “I love you” and below it, “I know”. I hadn’t read the summary carefully enough to realize that this was not, in fact, an exchange between lovers:

“I love you,” I say, because I really, really do.

“I know,” says Polly.

It is an exchange between friends, and it is very befitting the tone of this book. When Hermione finds out she was raped and is probably pregnant, there is no question of, “are you sure?”, or worse, “maybe you asked for it”. Her friends, her parents, her cheerleading squad (for the most part), all come together. But no one is as supportive as Polly. Polly, who I suspected of turning on Hermione because of how she is introduced:

… she looks like the perfect model, underneath the plastic veneer is a capacity for scorn and contempt I’m glad is on my side.

What I should have focused on, however, is the line right after:

Whatever the odds, if Polly is cheering for you, you are a force to be reckoned with.

Thing is, even if everyone wants to support Hermione, most of them don’t know how. Hermione herself is still recovering pieces of that night, still trying to figure out why certain things trigger her, and why some things don’t. She wants to tell people she’ll be alright, but really has no idea if she will be. This tension puts a strain on some of her relationships:

I return his stare, confused, until he looks away. And then I know. He’s afraid … He’s afraid that if he touches me, I’ll forget that he’s my dad, not my rapist.

So he doesn’t hug me. He just stands there looking at the new carpet. And finally, finally, I really start to cry.

Obviously, things don’t end there, but it has to be noted that Johnston is incredibly meticulous about Hermione’s struggle to back to the way things were. From the decision to have an abortion, to the way she deals with her panic attacks–nothing is a quick-fix. It’s sad, but I do think it’s these details that root this book in reality. Or that’s what I once felt as I was reading the book. Now, I have a different opinion. Reading novels about rape, or reading newspaper articles, it surprised me that this book was so focused on a community coming together. Reality makes decent people look like fantasy, which is why Johnston’s reminder to trust is so empowering. In books like Far From You and All the Rage, we see how powerful the truth can be, even when surrounded by people who cannot (will not) believe in it. In Exit, Pursued by a Bear, we see how the truth loses none of its potency when surrounded by people who are willing to trust in it. Highly, highly recommended!

*Well, not death. My bad. But pushed to the sidelines, certainly.