Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston, 2016


Used with permission of Penguin Random House.

Spoiler Alerts

For the Book Chosen Solely for Its Cover challenge (2018 Book Challenge)  I went with Exit, Pursued by A Bear by E.K. Johnston. The gorgeous cover features a near silhouetted cheerleader suspended mid-air against a sunset.  She hangs in the air limply, frozen in one moment eternally. But at the same time the waiting hands beneath speak to the inevitable future. Those hands also represent the issues of trust the main character struggles with throughout the book.

The story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Queen Hermione is now Hermione Winters, cheerleading captain entering senior year of high school in a tiny Canadian town of Palermo Heights, Ontario.  While at cheer camp, Hermione is drugged, raped and left half submerged in the nearby lake. She wakes in the hospital with no memory of the crime. The story follows her throughout her senior year as she recovers and overcomes the unwanted label of “the raped girl.”

If this is a realistic portrayal of how rape is dealt with in small Canadian towns, then bravo Canada for treating victims in humane and respectful ways that allow them to make the journey to survivor.

If this is a fairy-tale depicting the way rape should be handled, then it’s a masterful blue print for dealing with the crime.  Hermione has an extensive support system including loving parents, a fiercely loyal friend, Polly, cheer squad teammates (except for her ex-boyfriend, Leo) who help her regain normalcy and the backing of every adult authority figure in her life. She has access to medical care and mental health services and everyone seems emotionally equipped to deal with her recovery.

However, if this is supposed to be a realistic account of young woman’s struggle, there are some aspects that make this story less believable.  Her devoted parents are unrealistically hands off. Her psychiatrist is a condescending jerk who mocks cheerleading (a very important part of Hermione’s life). There’s no judgement or incredulity that normally plague rape victims. All the external forces around Hermione align perfectly to aid her healing without ever interfering.

None of my complaints make the book less readable or enjoyable. Those were just things that stood out as odd. Hermione is a believable character, a young woman with an athlete’s mentality who chooses to be proactive about her survivorship. What Johnston does extremely well is delve into Hermione’s rich inner life to shed light on issues of victimhood that never occur to most people.

Hermione tackles the question of how to feel like a victim when she can’t remember the rape. She’s infuriated by the “rape victim” label she must wear when the violation seems like it happened to some stranger. “This—my attack—it’s just this huge black spot. I don’t remember anything, and so I can’t feel anything. Except, I should feel something. And I don’t,” she explains. Having to act like a “proper” victim becomes a prison impeding the path to healing.

Some of the most authentic moments come from Hermione’s frustration that those around her are evolving because of her rape. As she says, “I don’t want to be anyone’s model for becoming a better person.” It isn’t said meanly. Watching someone experience personal growth as a direct result of your tragedy would be maddening, as Hermione points out, it’s like someone getting the silver lining from your cloud.

The end is a bit convoluted and rushed, but the reader is left with the feeling that Hermione Winters will thrive, which is really what we want.

Thoughts that still linger:

Apparently the first winter snow is a problem for Canadian drivers as well. “…after everyone will have gotten over their sudden-onset amnesia about how to drive on snowy roads.” Thought this was an Ohio thing.

They have a commencement ceremony in October. I don’t know if that’s a Canadian thing or small town Canadian thing. Or maybe commencement in Canada isn’t what I think it is.

There’s a strange (to me) scene where Hermione and her classmates fill out each other’s college roommate forms even though they’re going to different universities.

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