Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 15th, 2016
“I love you,” Polly says suddenly when I’m almost to the door.
“I know,” I say.
Hermione Winters has been a flyer. She’s been captain of her cheerleading team. The envied girlfriend and the undisputed queen of her school. Now it’s her last year and those days and those labels are fading fast. In a few months she’ll be a different person. She thinks she’s ready for whatever comes next.
But then someone puts something in her drink at a party, and in an instant she finds herself wearing new labels, ones she never imagined:
Victim. Survivor. That raped girl.
Even though this was never the future she imagined, one essential thing remains unchanged: Hermione can still call herself Polly Olivier’s best friend, and that may be the truest label of all.
Heartbreaking and empowering, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the story of transcendent friendship in the face of trauma.
“I love you,” I say, because I really, really do.
“I know,” says Polly.
When I first learned this book was about sexual assault, I knew it would be my kind of book. As you all know, I absolutely love tearjerker contemporary books about people other than myself facing their lowest of lows. It is my go-to of genres; this is where I know the most and am most comfortable reading. I obviously had very high expectations – especially considering the stunning cover and perfect title – so I do not say this lightly: Exit, Pursued by a Bear blew me the fuck away.
I do not like pitting books against each other. I do not like Not Like Other Books. But. BUT. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is unlike any sexual assault book I have ever read. Someone slips Hermione roofies during a dance at cheer camp and rapes her. She has no memory of what happened, and because of this she feels distant from the assault. What was amazing here is that we get to see a new way of “being a victim.” There are absolutely a lot of people who break down after this happens to them. But Hermione doesn’t really cry, she doesn’t react a whole lot at all. She is more interested in how others see her and making sure that she doesn’t become the Girl Who Was Raped, and instead stays on track toward all the goals she had beforehand. There is no right way to react to being raped, and this book makes sure to let us know that it’s all “normal.”
I cannot tell you how much I loved Hermione. I don’t usually go too crazy for contemporary heroines; she has to be something special. Hermione? She was bad ass and powerful. And I don’t mean that because she didn’t breakdown after her rape. I mean that because she was bad ass and powerful before it happened and she kept on being herself afterward. She’s the captain of her cheer squad, she’s a really great student. She is a decision maker. One of my favorite things about her is that when she sets her mind to something, she gets shit done. She and Polly had a plan for camp, and they got it done. She was faced with what to do with pregnancy that came from her rape, and she got that done. She applied to colleges and was accepted to ALL of them. She decided each step she was going to take, she made a plan, and she executed it precisely. She is very popular, to the point where she knows people will do whatever she wants just because of that popularity. But instead of using that advantage to be an asshole, she’s a genuinely good person. I just love her so, so much.
Which brings me to Polly. POLLY. Hermione’s best friend. These two are officially my new favorite contemporary friendship. They complement each other so well; they are a force. And Polly by herself is amazing too. She didn’t join cheer because she wanted to cheer; she tried out because she wanted to win. She isn’t mean, but she is scary. She can intimidate anyone and anything. One of Hermione’s lines about her best friend: “Polly will kill people if I need them to die.” Like? How bad ass is that? It doesn’t get any better.
One of the things I loved about this book was Hermione owning her own story. There are countless people who take a tragedy that happened to someone else and turn it into a defining moment in their own lives. A case to make a cop’s career. A sexist asshole’s path away from misogyny. A therapist’s Big Break. An author’s book deal. But Hermione doesn’t allow that to happen. As she says, she doesn’t want to be “anyone’s model for becoming a better person.” There are so many out there who want to take women’s experiences away from them. But Hermione grasps at her agency and doesn’t let it go. She is the one to make the tough calls with her legal case, she is the one to make the tough calls with her pregnancy, with her cheerleading team, with her college choice, with her future. Her rapist tried to take something away from Hermione and she absolutely would not let him.
I love dark contemporaries. I have read a million of them; they’re my favorites. And Exit, Pursued by a Bear stands out among even my faves. Hermione is amazing, as well as Polly, and together they form my favorite contemporary duo ever. And with lines like “You filled my bed with unnecessary starches!” you honestly can’t go wrong. This is a very different, very uplifting story about a girl coming to terms with being raped, and it is a necessary voice in a world telling girls they don’t own themselves.