Goodreads: Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Publication Date: March 2016
The cheer team is the pride and joy of Hermione Winters’ small hometown and she’s enjoying every last moment of being co-captain during her senior year of high school. Then someone slips her a drugged drink at a dance . The unthinkable has happened to her. But Hermione Winters does not want to be pregnant. She does not want to miss her senior year of cheerleading. She does not want to be that girl. Hermione Winters is not going to let anyone else write her story.
I initially picked this up because I thought it was a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, one of my favorite plays. However, aside from a few names and the jealousy of Hermione’s boyfriend, the book bears little resemblance to the work from which it takes its title. Rather it is the story of a girl who is drugged and raped at a party, and the aftermath of that experience. It is a difficult book, but, strangely, not as difficult as most other stories I have read with similar narratives.
[Spoilers ahead for the rest of the review.] E. K. Johnston seems to seek to present what she considers the ideal response to rape in this book, showing how Hermione’s friends and family almost unanimously support her in just the right way. There a few hiccups where rumors start to fly and Hermione seems about to have to deal with victim blaming. Then mostly everyone decides to ignore the rumors and/or to apologize for starting them. Similarly, though there are complications with the police inquiry, this does not seem to bother Hermione much. She also has the benefit of dealing with a very understanding and dedicated policewoman. She eases into therapy at her own pace, not really feeling the need for it yet, but still having the best therapist ever, one who decides to take her on as his last case out of the great goodness of his heart. For basically no money even though he’s quite prominent in his field.
Then Hermione finds out she’s pregnant. You might think this would be a pivotal moment in the story but Hermione immediately decides she will get an abortion at the first possible moment. She drives over with her best friend, has the abortion, and experiences exactly zero feelings of conflict or uncertainty and experiences exactly zero complications, aside from some cramping that she seems to categorize as nothing more than a slight nuisance. Even the minister lauds her decision and promises to fight for her if anyone suggests she has done the wrong thing. Everything at the abortion center goes off smoothly, leading Hermione to feel warm fuzzies and comradeship as she and the other women sit in the recovery room. I didn’t really feel like I was reading the story of a woman’s choice, but rather a manifesto for the wonders and glories of abortion. A small procedure and now your life is perfect, the advertisement–sorry, story–assures us. Hermione’s life as a cheerleader and high school student will go on almost exactly the same way as it would have gone on before.
Somehow, this feels disingenuous. Though certainly there are women who might have felt exactly as Hermione felt, is it quite as likely that they would have experienced nothing but ease and contentment throughout the whole process? Is it likely they would not have heard from one voice who might have asked them if this was really their choice, or if they wanted first to consider their options for assistance? Would they really never look back on the procedure and wonder what it all meant? Or think about how their life could have been so different? I couldn’t buy into the narrative because it did not feel like these were really Hermione’s emotions or thoughts. It felt like they were part of Johnston’s campaign to discuss avoiding teen pregnancy through this marvelous procedure she would like everyone to know about.
Of course, not every person will respond to a situation in the same way. Not every rape narrative written will be the same because not every person is the same. However, Hermione at times feels less like a person and more like a pawn, the piece Johnston moves to drive home her beliefs. I celebrated her strength and I see value in her story, which assures readers that even if you feel broken at times, you have a strength and a resiliency that you can draw upon. Which assures readers that when your strength and resiliency seem gone, you are allowed to draw upon the strength of others. Her story should be told. But I wish it had been told with a little more warmth and a little less didacticism.
The relationships in the book add some of that warmth, particularly Hermione’s best friend Polly (Shakespeare’s Paulina) who always knows what to say and always has Hermione’s back. And the focus on competitive cheerleading also adds some interest to the story. (Hermione would like you to know that she is a real athlete and that she works hard to do what she does.) Hermione’s friendships and her routine ground her when everything seems like it might be about to fly apart. They are charming. You may want her friends to be yours, too.
I do see value in this book. I think many other readers will, as well. Yet other readers may think that Hermione ought to have experienced more conflict, more difficulty. If not in her response to her rape, then perhaps in her experience with others. After all, few of us live in an ideal world where all our friends and family always know just what to do and what to say, where we can afford the best medical and psychiatric care, where we feel like authorities always do the best they can for us. Still, the book offers a portrait of strength and a glimmer of hope. That may be just what some readers need.