Release Date: March 15, 2016
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Age Group: Young Adult
Source: ARC provided by publisher for review consideration
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 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.
Tell Me More: The first thing you should know about this book is that it’s definitely not Veronica Mars. That doesn’t mean it isn’t as compelling or powerful as the popular TV series. You won’t find an snarky teen detective in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, but a girl who deals with her rape and subsequent pregnancy as best she can, and an author who is hyper-focused on giving her character the platform and space she needs. It’s trust that pays off.
Hermione Winters is precisely the kind of teen girl I wanted to be when I was a teen girl. She’s not perfect, but she is driven and determined, and she’s confident in her accomplishments. When she is drugged and raped at cheerleading camp, she is given time and space to come to terms with what has happened to her. There is a remarkable amount of compassion afforded to Hermione by many of the characters in the book, remarkable because we don’t often see that in the real world. Hermione’s best friend, family, and coach circle the wagons around her and don’t falter once.
The boys in this novel are much less interesting than the women, with Hermione’s father the only exception. The pastor of her church comes close, but we aren’t given a lot of time with him. I didn’t feel that that was necessary, however, because Hermione’s relationships with her mother, friends, and coach are what sustains the story’s emotional core. Her rape is never dismissed or turned into a way of shaming her. The women of this novel are emotional and strong and compassionate and incredibly courageous. They help Hermione through tough days and through quiet days. They do what they can to help Hermione work through a horrifying violation, because they love and care for Hermione.
Rape is a difficult topic to discuss without an immense amount of care and consideration, and YA novels don’t always succeed. Add in unwanted pregnancy and abortion, and you’ve got a myriad of ways things can go badly. Johnston doesn’t push, but she does make it clear where she stands: Hermione is, was, and always should be the one to control her life. Hermione’s choices are important and vital. Rape took a choice from her, but it does not destroy her or her life. Here, the commitment and support that’s given to her is so important to the story. It reinforces Hermione’s agency, and her right to make choices for herself.
The cover of Exit, Pursued by a Bear places that idea front and center for the reader to see. A cheerleader takes to the air, her physical strength and confidence clear even as she flips upside down. Hands reach for her, ready to cradle if she needs it and fortify her if she doesn’t. It’s a brilliant illustration of the story Johnston’s created, and the kind of world we should be building for our girls.
Check back next Tuesday for an interview with E.K. Johnston herself!
E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.