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

Exit, Pursued by a BearBy now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a fan of E.K. Johnston’s work. I’ve already recommended her debut duology, The Story of Owen, as well as A Thousand Nights, her Arabian Nights retelling. Her fourth novel is a bit of a departure from her earlier work, as it features no magic or other fantastical aspects, but it carries the same themes of female agency and strength through struggle.

Summary from Goodreads:

Veronica Mars meets William Shakespeare in E.K. Johnston’s latest brave and unforgettable heroine.

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 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.

I loved how Johnston’s cheerleaders are first and foremost athletes. They’re ordinary teenage boys and girls who love the challenging and engaging activity they do. It’s a far cry from the snooty blonde girl who waves pom-poms for the boys’ football team so often seen in fictional representations of cheerleaders. Hermione’s love for the sport is apparent in her devotion to her training and her dedication towards leading her team to nationals.

Johnston goes out of her way to set Hermione up as a ‘lucky’ rape survivor – and then systematically deconstructs the very idea of a lucky rape survivor. Hermione has a fantastic support network, from her cheerleading team and friends who rally around her, to the doctors and police officer who treat her with compassion and respect. She has weekly sessions with a therapist who doesn’t view her as a career-making case, but as a human being in need of his help. And all of this support does nothing to change the fact that a boy drugged her and raped her.

The fact that she was drugged, and remembers nothing of the assault, is the other thing Johnston does to set Hermione up as ‘lucky’. And yet instead of being haunted by thoughts of her attacker, Hermione instead fears every boy on her cheerleading team because any one of them could be her attacker – along with any boy from any of the other teams in Ontario that attend the camp – and every day at practice those boys are touching her and holding her, and she doesn’t know if one of them is doing so after having raped her and left her for dead. She has panic attacks whenever she smells pine trees or hears the song that was playing at the dance when she drank the spiked punch the night of the attack, because even though she doesn’t have any conscious memory of the assault, those things still trigger a deep-seated fear that she struggles to control.

The novel is crystal clear on one fact: No matter how events may unfold after the fact, rape is rape and it simply should not happen. End of story.

I mentioned that Hermione receives some amazing support after her assault. This leads me to a rather spoiler-y moment, but it’s simply far too important for me to leave out, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers. When Hermione learns that she is pregnant, she states, in front of her mother, best friend and doctor, that she’s having an abortion. And immediately the doctor gives her advice on the proceedings. Never once does Hermione second-guess her choice, either before or after the abortion. This is so, so rare in YA fiction; I can’t even remember another book where a woman has an abortion, for whatever reason, without there being some angst or indecision. The fact that Hermione knows immediately that abortion is the right choice for her, and that her doctor and close friends and family agree, is HUGE.

A core component of Hermion’s support network is her best friend, Polly. From the moment Hermione wakes up from her drug-induced state, Polly is beside her, protecting her at every turn and standing behind all of her choices. It is Polly that drives Hermione to the clinic for her abortion, Polly who takes her home from the school dance that played the song from the night of her rape, Polly who is steadfastly by Hermione’s side. It’s a beautiful friendship, and one of the things I liked most about it was that Hermione’s and Polly’s lives diverge in the latter months of their final year at school, with them ultimately choosing universities a five-hour drive apart, but though their lives grow more distant, their relationship doesn’t. Often in fiction when teenage girls face separation as their high school years come to a close, it’s painted as a bad thing, or at best bittersweet, but for Hermione and Polly, it simply is. They have their own goals and dreams and they don’t love each other any less because they won’t be doing them together, and I think that paints an important portrait of teenage friendship for YA readers.

I’ve focussed a lot on the rape culture and feminist aspects of this book, and rightly so, because that’s essentially what this book is about. But it wouldn’t be doing justice to Hermione to not talk about the other reasons to read the book, because Hermione spends her grade 12 year deliberately rejecting the idea that her rape defines her, so I’m going to also talk about the things that make this book unique in a way that is utterly unrelated to its treatment of rape culture and misogyny.

The first part of the book is set at a cheerleading camp on Lake Manitouwabing, north of Muskoka. I attended summer camp in Ontario throughout my childhood and teenage years, and Exit features the first fictional depiction of camp that really feels like camp. I don’t know if there’s a certain culture that’s unique to summer camps in Ontario or what, but Johnston absolutely nails it. When Hermione described the annual feeling of returning home from camp, I was immediately transported back to my own summers at that age, because Hermione (and therefore Johnston) gets it. She gets the way life at camp is ruled by bells, the way summertime friendships may be eternal or fleeting, but always intense, and the way life at home always feels a bit ‘off’ when you first get back.

Perhaps it’s because the book is set in the same part of the world I grew up in that its depiction of camp resonates so clearly with me. My camp was in Algonquin, not Parry Sound, but they’re both on the cusp between Northern and Southern Ontario, that place where city-dwellers seek to harness the wilderness, and from hints throughout the book I’m 90% sure Hermione’s hometown is in the same regional municipality as my own.

This isn’t something I coud say about many books. I grew up in the Golden Horseshoe, the most populated area of Canada, and yet often fiction by Canadian authors obfuscates its roots. A book like this could easily have been set in Anytown, North America, with the nearby abortion clinics located in invented towns, not Waterloo and Toronto, but Johnston never seeks to hide the fact that the book is set in Southern Ontario. Hermione’s therapist complains there’s no Tim’s (ie, Tim Horton’s) in Hermione’s hometown, while Hermione and her teammates discuss what universities they’ll attend – all real institutions located in Ontario. In the end, Hermione’s nationality is as much a part of her identity as her sport.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a poignant tale about one girl’s struggle to regain control of her future after being assaulted, and the heartwarming friendship that supports her at every step of the way.

Nicola is a Canadian expat in Scotland. You can probably find her going through all her old camp photos, lost in nostalgia.

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