I do not expect books about rape to leave me feeling hopeful. I do not expect books about rape to make me want to be a better person. And yet, enmeshed with the pain and horror of the violation of this despicable act, Exit, Pursued by A Bear gave me loving friends, caring family, and a strong-willed heroine who is one of the bravest people I've ever had the luck to read about. And I don't mean that in a patronizing way: I mean that she does things I never have and until now, never thought I could. But Hermione made me rethink my restrictions. She made me want to be more than I ever thought I could be.
Hermione Winters cannot wait for the bus to finally arrive at Camp Manitoubawing for her last year of cheer camp before going off to college. She's team captain, one of the best fliers (the people who get thrown in the air), and she is determined that her school (which isn't known for anything other than cheer, to be frank) wins Nationals this year. She is going to go out on a high note, and she and BFF Polly are going to break the school curse: which is that someone always ends up pregnant. Not this year.
Johnston hammers home the amount of effort and physical work needed to be a cheerleader. It's not just waving some fluffy pom-poms around and yelling "Yay!" The guys on the bottom need to have the explosive strength to get the fliers in the air, and the confidence to catch them safely. Fliers need gymnastic ability and acrobatics. Everyone on the team, above anything else, needs trust. Trust is what fuels a fantastic cheer team. And Hermione trusts her team. They are her best friends--one, Leo, is even her boyfriend.
And then that unthinkable thing. That thing that girls don't name because they're afraid that by saying the word, they will summon it, like a wicked djinn or a crafty demon.
Someone slips a roofie into Hermione's punch at a camp dance and rapes her, leaving her naked and unconscious at the edge of the lake. She doesn't remember any of it, which is both a blessing and a curse--she can't identify her attacker. Because of the water, the police couldn't collect a sample. The only way to identify the rapist is if Hermione gets pregnant.
And she does.
And she makes a choice.
Even though Leo blames her for being 'loose and slutty' and therefore "asking for it;" even though one of her teammates snitches on the box of condoms that Leo slipped into Hermione's bag without her knowledge; even though society--21st century society--still blames the victim and not the perpetrator of rape, Hermione continues with her life and has an abortion.
I've never read anything so frank, unapologetic, and fierce as this. I think part of the fascination, for me, comes from the fact that the book is set in Canada, and their healthcare system is very different from the one in the United States. I read with wonder as Hermione's parents, Polly, her doctors, and the police all support her. The scene with her pastor broke me: a man who prays for Hermione despite what his parishioners think and whisper behind the scenes. Because he is a good man. A good person.
This is not to say that Hermione's life is all puppies and roses after the rape--that would be ridiculous. Even with all of this support, she still suffers from post-traumatic stress, and she begins seeing a psychiatrist to sort out her feelings. She still has to pass calculus and she still has to get her college applications in on time. And Palermo Heights has a cheer competition to win.
I can't give you all of the wonderful quotes in this book, because then this review would be longer than the book itself. I can tell you that this is essential reading. As I followed Hermione, I felt myself being challenged. She is so brave. She wants to strike out on her own. She knows that change happens and that it hurts but that it's necessary. So who am I to stay in one place out of fear? I can do this. I can fly, too, in my own way. Just not with the throwing and the tumbling and stuff because I'd totally land on my head.
In her afterward, E.K. Johnston acknowledges that Hermione's story is unique in that she has an amazing support system and the luxury (yes! LUXURY!) of making choices for her health. I would pair this with Courtney Summers' emotionally devastating yet monumentally important book All the Rage for a fascinating comparison between reactions to rape victims. But what these writers are telling us with these books--no matter what the outcome for the protagonist--is this:
We should not have to pay to be healthy. We should not have to be white to have sort-of-decent healthcare options as opposed to no options because they're just too bloody expensive. The justice system must punish the rapist, and not the victim. Hermione has a chance at taking out her attacker, but many girls do not, or are afraid to.
This has to change. At the most fundamental core of our existence, we, as humans, must respect and honor women's bodies as sacrosanct, not as objects to be taken at will by men. We must listen to the voices who accuse. We must believe those voices.
I believe. Do you?