I’m going to begin this review by talking about an entirely different story first.
A couple days before reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I read a short story titled “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson. It’s a good story and well-written, and violent—at its core is the physical, mental, and cultural violence surrounding sexual assault.
Browsing the author’s blog, I came across a post in which she was responding to another author’s sentiment that the story wasn’t worth reading because of the gruesome sexual assault. Robson wrote that she believed it important and necessary to depict a violent and upsetting reality (without being gratuitous) because otherwise she would be contributing to the erasure of a reality that currently exists and most people ignore (specifically the preying on Native American women.)
I then read a different blogpost the second author had written a few years ago, which in the comments she advocates for more stories being written with realities where people simply don’t rape other people, as a way of showing readers what that kind of reality can look like.
The reason I bring up this particular short story and the conversation that occurred regarding if, how, and why rape should or shouldn’t be portrayed in the first place in fiction is because I found myself asking questions about Exit, Pursued By a Bear while reading it that paralleled the situation I just described. Not about the portrayal of rape, however, but its aftermath.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the story of Hermione Winters, a high school senior and captain of her exceptionally talented cheerleading team, who has high hopes for her final year before university, and who was drugged and raped by an unknown assailant at the yearly two-week pre-season cheer camp. Not only does Hermione have all the physical and emotional trauma to deal with, both from the rape itself and the aftermath, but she’s now someone different in the eyes of people who know what happened. She’s not just Hermione anymore—she’s “the raped girl,” or “the girl who was raped.”
The questions I asked while reading the book stemmed from the comparatively positive portrayal of family, friends, teammates, teachers, the police, and the medical establishment, who sincerely support and try to do the best by Hermione. Johnston deliberately gives Hermione a strong support system and allies whom Hermione trusts. First and foremost is her best friend Polly, a blunt, in-your-face kind of girl who fights like a bear to protect those she loves. Occasionally some of them stumble, and there’s definitely miscommunication and hard feelings that come up, but they nevertheless demonstrably provide assistance/do their jobs/try to support her as best they can even when they’re not quite sure how.
Hermione’s reality in Exit, Pursued by a Bear differs from a more typical reality in which many rape survivors have few or no people they can rely on for support. E.K. Johnston even acknowledges in the book’s afterword that it was important for her that Hermione have the support system she does and gets the medical and legal help she needs, but that it’s not standard in actual practice. One could argue that Hermione’s story reads as all-too optimistic. The reality of a world in which she has few options for people to turn to or are willing to help her is not hers.
On the other hand, Exit, Pursued by a Bear’s portrayal fits with what Bradford was describing as what she wanted to see in fiction—stories that don’t present or include rape without comment or deconstruct it, but show an alternate reality of what a world and a people who do right can be like. I do believe that stories like Hermione’s and books like Exit, Pursued by a Bear are needed as much as stories that present a much grimmer, harsher reality of being a rape survivor. We need stories of what it looks like for a survivor to have support, and be supported in the “right” way. And just because she has a solid support system doesn’t mean Hermione doesn’t have an incredible amount to deal with—her physical and mental health, her boyfriend Leo who thinks it’s her fault she was raped, and the surrounding culture that either blames Hermione for her rape or tries to turn her rape into her identity. Through all this, Hermione fights to see and be seen as herself, and not a girl frozen in memorial as her trauma.
At this point I do want to clarify that Exit, Pursued by a Bear is not an instance of “message” fiction. All the characters are well-written and the relationships between them are strongly developed. Hermione is her own person—confidant, a leader, and in love with cheerleading and her team. And the ways in which she deals with having been raped feel very clearly her own, as opposed to a generic or stereotypical “this is what a character who was raped should act like” portrayal. As I said above, I loved Hermione’s friendship with her best friend Polly. My favorite part is that the only instance in which the sentence “I love you” is uttered in the book is between the two of them. Because best friends are awesome, and telling your best friend you love them is awesome.
It was also cool to read a book in which cheerleading is treated as an objectively difficult sport, and the people who practice it as talented athletes who work hard and train together. There’s no internal competition, no “mean girl” or “mean girl” culture, and there are several guys on the team who love the sport and aren’t ashamed of doing something traditionally “girly.”
Honestly, I can always tell when I’m reading an E.K. Johnston novel because positive relationships will be central to the story and there won’t be any bad guys. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the one book I’ve read of hers in which there is something resembling a bad guy, and that guy is the rapist. But he’s not the point and is never made the point—instead it’s this team of small-town cheerleaders—teammates and friends—who tease and laugh and play jokes on each other, care for each other, and strive to build each other up no matter what. Even Leo, as much as he’s an asshole, is portrayed in such a way that shows he is capable of behaving far better than he does.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a strong book, unique, and also important. It combines realism with idealism, with Hermione dealing with being a rape survivor while having the unequivocal support of her best friend, teammates, parents, and all the adults and establishments whose job it is to help survivors. It’s a powerful story. And it’s good.