Exit, Pursued by a Bear

by E. K. JohnstonExit, Pursued by a Bear is a worthy successor to Laurie Halse Anderson’s seminal novel Speak.  In Speak, Melinda Sordino was so traumatised by her assault that she was unable to even say the words “I was raped,” to herself, much less out loud for months afterwards.  Hermione Winters, the protagonist of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, is everything Melinda was not: popular, confident, unwilling to cower in the aftermath of her rape, with the bonus of super-supportive parents and a steadfast best friend.Hermione is the co-captain of the award-winning cheerleading team at Palermo Heights High School in the small town of Palermo Heights, Ontario.  On the first night of an annual summer cheer camp, every school talks about their inner collective demons: fear of heights, plagues of self-doubt.  Hermione, though, describes PHHS as a cursed school where, “every single class… since 2006 has lost a student to a drunk driver… [and] every year one of the girls in PHHS gets pregnant.”  The cheerleading squad’s challenge is to break the curse.  Hermione’s class may have lost a student years ago to a drunk driver, but they are determined that there will not be a pregnant girl at PHHS this year.The cheerleading team is no laughing matter, and in fact they are the pride of Palermo Heights.  In Palermo Heights, the sports teams play second fiddle to the cheerleaders. PHHS’s cheerleading team is also unusually tightly-knit, which is a factor in their ongoing success.  This camaraderie is threatened during cheer camp.  One minute Hermione is dancing at the end-of-camp dance, and the next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital, where her best friend, Polly, informs Hermione she’s been raped. Hermione refuses to let one single event define her, but it proves difficult in a small town with a small high school.  The whispers, stares, and rumours follow Hermione as she tries to move on from the rape, enlisting the help of once-a-week sessions with a psychologist, and throwing herself back into cheerleading.Johnston handles several sensitive issues — rape, pregnancy, abortion, sexuality —  in Hermione’s matter-of-fact voice.  It serves to put things into perspective.  Yes, Hermione’s rape is traumatic, and she experiences flashbacks, often at inopportune times, but to Hermione the actual event matters less than how she decides to handle it.  I think that is what makes this book stand out in a crowded YA shelf: Hermione decides who is going to tell her story.  It’s on her terms and no one else’s.  It also passes the infamous “Bechdel test,” in which two women discuss anything other than a boy.If the title rings a bell, congratulations!  You are officially a Shakespeare nerd.  “Exit, pursued by a bear…” is one of the more bewildering stage directions in Shakespeare, from his play A Winter’s Tale.  To this day nobody knows if Shakespeare intended to use a real bear or an actor in a bear costume.  The novel, though, is much less circumspect.  The bear that pursues Hermione are the myriad slings and arrows from the aftermath of the rape.  The novel is a cleverly drawn parallel between Shakespeare’s play of a falsely accused queen named Hermione.  So, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, is in fact, a Winters’ tale, because it is the tale of Hermione Winters.  In the play, King Leontes accuses Queen Hermione of having an affair.  In the novel, Hermione’s boyfriend Leo, doesn’t really believe she was raped.  The play has a character called Polixenes who proclaims Hermione’s innocence, and the novel has Hermione’s bestie Polly, who will defend Hermione until she no longer has breath. If you enjoy books with strong female leads, and read a realistic story where girls can talk about more than their respective love lives, you’ll enjoy this book.  I know I did.For read-alikes, try Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and of course, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.