Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by EK Johnston
In every class, there's a star cheerleader and a 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.
My Review: Senior year promised Hermione Winters a lot of changes and a lot of endings. Cheerleading, one of the pillars of her life, will come to an end at graduation, and she'll be moving on to college without her best friend, Polly, and possibly without her boyfriend, Leo. But she's ready for those changes, and is determined to make her senior year all it can be. Until the night of the dance at cheer camp, when someone drugs her drink, rapes her, and leaves her limp and bleeding in the lake. Though Hermione can't remember the incident, she's confronted with the brutal truths of her new reality: that rumors fly faster and farther than truth, that her boyfriend thinks she brought it on herself, and that Polly is the strongest person she knows.
One of the best things about Exit, Pursued by a Bear is how it begins by establishing Hermione, Polly, Leo, and the world well before the trauma. We get to see the Before, which allows us to understand how things are so fundamentally changed by the rape. The characters themselves are all really wonderfully done; each with strong internal motivations that makes their reactions so realistic. Hermione is a sympathetic character that wonderfully breaks the cheerleader stereotype. The trope of the snobby cheerleader is so overwrought that it's annoying more than boring, so this book was a wonderfully refreshing take. As well, Polly is such a champion throughout the whole book. I wish I had a Polly; hell, I wish everyone had a Polly. Having that kind of ride or die friend helps Hermione through the tough moments, but the nice thing is she doesn't completely lean on Polly either. Hermione has got her head in the right place and would've been find without her, which is nice as well. It's not a story of dependency, it's a story of friendship.
And, as you can tell by the description, this book tackles some pretty heavy things. Not only is Hermione attacked and brutalized, but she goes through a lot of the issues that women do when they're sexually assaulted. Her boyfriend implies that she wouldn't have been raped if she had been with him, where she was "supposed" to be. A teammate spreads some rumors about her having condoms at camp, which was taken out of context. A reporter asks her if she has advice for other girls on how to avoid rape. But on the other side of the coin, she has a lot of support from places that some real rape victims don't, like the police, parents, and the rest of the team. It's a really nice balance that made this a story unique to Hermione instead of just a series of awful things that happen to rape victims.
From the first page, the book engages the reader and makes you care. This book isn't dramatic, and it's a calmer, quieter tension that carries the reader through the book. It's also more realistic in a lot of ways. It's not a revenge fantasy or a tragedy, but a story of a girl going through a big trauma without defining herself by it. Because of that, the ending feels a little out of place and almost wish-fulfillment. It felt a tad rushed since everything happened within the last chapter and then it ends abruptly, with our characters shooting that metaphorical basket on the way out. If there had been a little bit more to ground the reader after that abrupt pivot, it might've been a better, at least in my opinion.
The only other concern I had is, and I'll be the first to admit it's petty, the title is a Shakespearean reference, as reinforced by the other Shakespeare quotes before each part. Yet the story itself had no reference to Shakespeare, which made it feel out of place to me. Although the title did tie in at the end when Polly and Hermione exit the field, as the "bears" (their team mascot) pursing the rapist. Still, it set me up to expect some sort of Shakespearean influence, so that kind of threw me.
TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A brave book about a girl refusing to be defined by her assault.