If you look back to posts from earlier this year, Exit Pursued By a Bear is on the one of 2016 releases I was most anticipating. I pre-ordered it because it is E.K. Johnston. I pre-ordered it from my local bookstore so I could pick it up on its release day. Why is it a whole month later that the review is finally up? Because for a long time all I could do was look at it and long to read it. I knew that it was a story about a girl who was raped, and that's one of a few subjects I almost never pick up books about. I couldn't not read this book though. It's a reworking of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I read enough of Johnston's press surrounding the release to also know that is is about friendship and choice and life. I have come to expect excellent and thoughtfulness from Johnston's writing, and she delivered with both of those again.
Hermione Winters attends her last cheer camp excited about the year to come. She is a captain. She is flyer. Her team is solid and this year has so much potential, not just for her cheer team, but for life. But at the end of camp party, her year takes a horrific turn. She wakes up in the hospital the next morning to discover she was drugged, raped, and left in the lake. She has to navigate the last year of high school with labels she never thought to wear. She has to make decisions she never anticipated. Some things in her life remain constant. Her parents love her. Her team has her back. And most important, she is Polly Olivier's best friend.
I read this book in one sitting, stopping only once to make my son a sandwich. (It was dinner time. I get it.) The whole time I was in a state of near tears. I'm the same way while typing this. I just felt so much for Hermione. Johnston is a top-notch storyteller. She has proven that in her three previous books. What amazes me is how deft she is at altering her style and cadence to adapt to her story and setting. In this she tells a very straight forward story in the first person about a girl. And that's what this. It's no't a book about rape. It's not a book about abortion. It's not even a book about cheerleading. Most especially, it is not a cautionary tale. It is the story of one girl who suffers a terrible violation and her personal journey afterward.
Hermione's reaction to her rape is not dramatic. She is not forever traumatized. She needs therapy, and it helps her out, but she isn't a basket case. This is important because this is the way a lot of women would deal with what happened to her. She wants things as normal as possible. She continues to cheer. She applies to college. She wants to hang out with her friends. Some of that is harder to get back than others. Hermione does have the occasional panic attack and has to learn to deal with the triggers she will now always have, but I really appreciated this look at a person who reacts with thoughts rather than emotions. Not that one way is better than the other, but because this is how I would respond to something like this. It's the way my daughter would too, and that thought is why I spent the majority of this book on the verge of tears and wanting to hug Hermione's mom as well as Hermione.
The book is packed with amazing secondary characters too, but none quite so amazing as Polly Olivier, Hermione's best friend. She is fierce. She is loyal. She is understanding. She takes no crap from anyone. When Hermione is too consumed by what's going on to realize Polly has fallen for a girl they met at camp, she manages to understand, forgive, and also prod Hermione into the world a little more all at once. Their friendship is one of those friendships girls dream of having with someone at some point in their lives. No time more than high school. How Johnston handled their growth and the typical senior year pulling apart and saying good bye on top of everything else was truly beautiful. Hermione also has Mallory, who is not as bold and brash as Polly, but is as amazing in her own quiet way. The rest of the cheerleading team (save for the boy Hermione was dating at the time of the rape) are really supportive too. As is every adult in the book. They are all amazing. Parents. Therapist. Police. Coach. All of them. And it is exactly what is supposed to happen when something like this happens to a girl. Johnston has said this is the most fantasy she'll write despite it's contemporary realistic genre placement. I can see why she would say that, it is a lot of how life should be but far too often isn't. Except there is a boy who thinks his desires are more important than a girl's consent, will, or life and that is all too real.
As much as I don't like to read books that have rape, I think they are incredibly important and there is no such thing as having too many of them. Rape victims all respond in different ways to what happen to them. So whether you are reading Speak, All the Rage, Exit Pursued by a Bear, or any of the other books that have been written or will be on the subject, they all have something to offer. And I hope people keep writing them until they're not needed anymore. As a mom, this is one I definitely want both my daughter and my son to read.