Exit, Pursued by a Bear - E. K. Johnston
Updated: Oct 4, 2018
I chose to read this book for two reasons, it’s a 2019 YRCA Title, and because I love Shakespeare, which might not make sense, except that “Exit, pursued by a bear” is perhaps one of the most famous stage directions in a Shakespearian Play. It is the stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, when the character of Antigonus has been ordered to abandon a baby. The encounter proves fatal for him, but not for the infant. Over the years there has been a significant amount of scholarly pursuit debating whether there was ever a real bear when the play was in its original run, but I digress.
The main character, Hermione Winters (I really do love all the Shakespeare nods throughout), is a cheerleader entering her final year of high school. The story starts the second last week of August as Hermione is attending her last cheer camp with her squad and her best friend and co-captain Polly, a two week intensive training camp attended by cheerleading squads from all over Ontario.
The camp, located at Camp Manitouwabing, in Rural Ontario, on the shores of lake Manitouwabing, well outside Perry Sound is nestled between Algonquin Park, North Bay, and Georgina Bay.
I found all of this comforting to two reasons, I spent a LOT of time in Algonquin Park growing up, and I know exactly what camps and cabins look like and are like in that neck of the woods; I was also a cheerleader in high school, and found it very refreshing to see my own cheerleading experience mirrored.
Cheerleading in Canada is very different that our American counterparts. Both nations share the rigorous training and the competitive nature, but American Football isn’t as common in high schools in Canada, and so many cheerleaders may cheer for their schools sports teams, but they are a sport independently. Cheerleaders aren’t bimbos, they are intelligent and hardworking members of a high functioning team.
Spoiler alert: Very early on in the story, Hermione is drugged and raped at the camp, the book is really about her navigating the aftermath of her rape, and her last year of high school.
There were a lot of things I really appreciated about this book. I appreciated that they often used the word rape instead of sexual assault (my own personal vendetta about trivializing rape); I appreciate that this book deals with sexual violence in a YA book in a respectful, realistic, and frank way; I appreciate that this book has some of the most amazing female friendships I’ve ever seen in a YA book; I appreciate that Hermione’s parents are strong real people with their own emotions and feelings about their daughters rape; I appreciate that she has other strong adults in her life and as part of her support network; I appreciate that Hermione’s story is the exploration of the emotional, legal, and medical ramifications of rape, and dear reader, these are all explored in detail, including: Spoiler Alert: Hermione’s decision to terminate the pregnancy.
Hermione faces rumours, cruelty, censure, pity, and ignorance during her school year, high school can be a cutthroat place after all. But one of my absolute favourite moments is when Hermione and Polly are being interviewed by a journalist profiling the team after the provincial finals. After asking pleasantries about “what cheering means to me” and “what’s your favourite part about cheerleading” the journalist makes the mistake of asking: “Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart and stop such awful things happening to them?” I actually cheered out loud at the way Polly and Hermione take the journalist to task for such an ill-conceived, misogynistic, rape culture promoting question. WOOT!
There are a lot of things that happen in this book, rape, abortion, Spoiler Alert: her best friend Polly coming out, her team making it to nationals, and her parents’ concerns over her going away to college, but all of these things unravel in the complicated way that life really does unfold. Despite there being a lot of content, E.K. Johnston’s writing is crisp, neat, and clear.
I found it so refreshing, even if it was a difficult topic, Hermione’s inner strength, and the strength that she borrows from her support network is really inspirational.
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