In “Exit Pursued by a Bear” (Dutton 2016) by E.K. Johnston, high school senior Hermione Winters is captain of the cheerleading squad. Polly, her best friend, is co-captain and the friend that everyone on earth needs. The championship cheerleading squad is the gem of the town—more so than the teams for whom it cheers. That’s cool.
Senior year should be Hermione’s best year to date, but at the end of summer cheer camp, at the dance party, an unknown boy drugs her punch and rapes her at lakeside. Hermione is left unconscious, half in the water, with no memory of what happened. But once in the hospital she knows it’s awful—whatever it was, and she can guess. But who did it?
The author breaks that arch writing-rule that states: heap problems on your protagonist. Hermione is a confident, witty, talented, intelligent force at school. Polly is a miracle of a best friend. Her parents and her pastor are supportive. Everything is great, except—Hermione was raped. (Well, her boyfriend, Leo, is a douchebag). But all this good happening for and by Hermione lets us focus on one issue—rape—and how Hermione refuses to be a victim.
Hermione will not let this tragic event make her hide away and request home schooling or put up emotional walls—in spite of the fact that she has plenty of reason to do so.
She doesn’t care for the way people are treating her—as if she’s broken—or how they’re looking at her at the grocery store. She says to her pastor that she has a presumptuous favor to ask: “Please don’t ask people to pray for me.” She doesn’t want to be known as the girl-who-was-raped.
When Leo, her jealous boyfriend—actually, ex-boyfriend—suggests maybe Hermione was flirting and deserved what she got, she lays into him, saying, “If you think I’m going to apologize for being drugged and raped, you have another thing coming.”
Polly’s betters that. She says, “So let me get this straight . . . You’re okay with asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else—you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask the boy how he would avoid raping someone?”
There are more twists and turns to the story, but those would spoil your reading of the book.
Every girl who has ever been sexually assaulted or known someone who has, should read this book. So should every boy who has ever raped or known one who has. Every reader might try to be a friend like Polly. E.K. Johnston writes so well, showing a dark reality highlighted by compassion. And it’s a fast read at only 242 pages.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia (2017) and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (2014). talesforallages.com