There’s no wrong way to process trauma. We might not agree with the way someone does it, but we cannot dictate the way they process. I won’t even say choose to process. It’s not always a choice. Sometimes, the way we react to things is very different from what we say we would do in a hypothetical situation. E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear tells of the story of Hermione’s trauma and her subsequent actions.
This book is sold as a retelling of The Winter’s Tale, but with the exception of some names and the name. the two have little in common. Admittedly, it’s been years since I read the play, so maybe there’s more there that I would recognize with a real comparison piece, but that’s not what’s happening here. Here I’m talking about this book. Now, I shamefully have to admit that I had no idea what the title meant. Stage directions have never really been my thing. So I did some research before I read the book. The title totally fits, and hints at how the story is going to wrap up. The tagline on Goodreads claims this book is Veronica Mars meets Shakespeare. As a huge VM fan, I can say with certainty that I have zero, and I mean zero, idea how this compares to Veronica Mars at all. There is no mystery, no investigation, no challenging authority or channeling of that fighting, persnickety spirit. The only thing these characters have in common is that they’re blond.
Hermione (the character notes that this could be a reference to the play or Harry Potter) is a cheerleader. Her team – The Golden Bears. She’s a hell of a cheerleader. She’s the captain. She’s an athlete. She’s elite. They’re all athletes. Cheerleading is hard. But it’s really great. Really, really great. And you get to wear tons of ribbons in your hair! For real guys! Before we get into what I liked about the book, let’s talk about the minor issues that keep this book from being fabulous. First – I don’t love the writing. It’s not terrible by any means. It’s just slightly on the positive side of okay. If not for the subject matter, it might have been a bigger problem. Second – this is a cheerleading story that happens to involve a rape. Not a story about rape trauma and recover that involves a cheerleader. The focus of the book is on the cheerleading. Maybe that was the intention, but it takes away from the importance of the story underneath. It makes it almost tentative in its message.
Unlike a lot of other YA books, the rape happens during the time of the book. Often we are introduced to characters who have already experienced their rape, and we live it through their flashbacks. But Hermione doesn’t remember her rape. It happens off stage – for us and for her. This was a refreshing and realistic approaches to a rape story. When date rape drugs are involved, the experience is different. We have this girl that everyone knows was raped. There is physical proof that she was. Everyone knows. And in a way, Hermione does too. But she does not remember it happening. The before and after, sure. But the event itself was taken away from her by roofies. Is this a blessing? She doesn’t have to relive it. She doesn’t have to live in the way it feels on her skin. But how can she get over something when she doesn’t feel like it happened to her. She even reflects that she feels sympathy for the girl who was raped, not empathy. But it’s her. Her body. Her person. Herself. How terrible to have this huge thing happen to your body and not have any awareness of it – especially for an athlete whose entire life is formed around the way her body moves in conjunction with other.
So many of the books we get about rape live in the active reactions or the deep, dark trauma. And those reaction are 100% legitimate. They are real. And maybe they are even more common than how Hermione responds. Perhaps it is that fact that she feels so removed from the event that allows Hermione to built herself up. Perhaps it is because she has such a strong support system. This girl is surrounded by people who take care of her. Her best friend. Her parents. Her school. Her team. The police. Everywhere she turns, she’s got support. All of this combines to create a different, but equally valid, experience from some of the other YA books on rape (Courtney Summers writes some of the best).
I’m not going to pretend that Hermione doesn’t have some privilege that shapes her experience. She, well Polly mostly, is able to say the things we all want to scream from the roof tops – the only person in the wrong in a rape is the rapist. When a reporter tries to turn their trip to the nationals into a story about Hermione’s rape, Polly straight up asks if she would ask the same question if they were male. Johnston throws the double standards into the forefront. Something she is able to do because of the setting she’s created for the rest of the novel. When you’re not fighting to get everyone on your side, you can look at some of the broader issues. The double standards and sexism that still run deep in society. Even in Canada – though we’re loathe to admit it.
And fortunately, we get no resolution at the end of the book. No neatly tied bow (in her hair) to send the guilty boy to jail. As indicated by the title, the culprit is disposed of offstage while keeping our heroes hands clean. The cheerboy from another town is pursued by a team of bears that will do anything to protect their leader. Except Leo (the one clear parallel with The Winter’s Tale). He is jealous. Jealous of rape! It’s ridiculous. He blames his girlfriend for what happened to her. Her actions were the cause. Eventually he gets his head out of his ass, but that’s probably got more to do with the influence of his friends than him coming to terms on his own.
One of the most stand out moments of the story is Hermione watching all these people around her growing stronger because of her rape, while she is still trying to figure out how she was affected by it. She watches a police officer develop from a rookie to a confident officer. A boyfriend develop from a jealous boy into a support. Her best friend grow into her sexuality and new relationship. A quiet teammate step up and become more involved. Everyone becomes a stronger person because of her trauma. Except her. She stays the same for most of the book. It’s a perspective I’ve never read in a rape book before, but is something that comes of trauma. The people around the victim who lift their stature on the shoulders of the trauma. It’s not done with malice. It’s not even a bad thing. Sometimes (like in the case of the cop) it’s completely necessary. But thinking about how it impacts the victim is something I’ve never considered before.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is all about using the supports around you to get through whatever it is you need to get through. Sometimes, it feels a little like not using your supports is put down. I think this is a result of the writing style and not intent. Hermione is never allowed to have a breakdown. And whether or not that’s good in the long term is unclear. But for the purpose of this novel, Hermione shows people that it’s okay to ask for help. That there are people who will love you even when you feel dirty or broken. That it’s okay to not know how you feel about the things that have happened to you.That’s you’re enough, even when you don’t feel like it.