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Exit, Pursued by a Bear

exitExit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Dutton, March 2016
Reviewed from a final copy

I’m not for sure where I’m landing in this review, so I guess I’ll have to write it and see where I end up. Ha, I guess I’m flying right now, and I’m hoping this review (or you all, in the comments) will catch me. I definitely loved this book, and feel like it’s continuing my tough lady reading streak this year. With four starred reviews, I know I’m not alone in that love. Johnston is a past Morris honoree, too, so I have no doubt RealCommittee is taking a careful look at this title. Exit is emotional and compelling, it has strong characters, often funny dialogue, and as a story it balances uncertainty and resolution very delicately and deftly.

Something small but that I really loved was how seriously it took and compelling it made cheerleading. Johnston’s sporty descriptions never bogged down the plot or distracted the reader from the main meat of the story; they added tension and allowed us to understand the main characters better than we otherwise would. The excellent sports writing really helped the novel gel in a lot of ways. The team’s support and teamly-ness seems like it means more because the work is so difficult and the competition is so steep. As a result, the victory at the end also seems more meaningful. I’m not always a huge sports fan, but sports writing will always get me. Showing the team camaraderie added other kinds of depth as well. We have a subtle, effective juxtaposition when we get hints of how Amy’s year has gone, when compared to the teens at Palermo. What would Hermione’s year have been like without her teammates?

Which leads me to the support system overall that Johnston gives her heroine. While the individual characters are very well defined, I think the thing that will stay with me the longest is the picture of what a supportive, kind, and generous support system looks like. How remarkable is that support system? How remarkable is it that we must remark on that support system? Exit makes totally clear just how gruelling and difficult moving past sexual assault is, and Hermione’s people hold her, help her, and support her every step of the way. It’s important that this aspirational depiction exists; it gives readers an understanding that they deserve such support in their lives. And by process of extrapolation, it allows readers to better realize what sorts of tremendous strengths people have to have when they lack such strong and generous support systems.

The ways that these teens take care of each other are very powerful. The reverse is equally true; when Hermione asks for help, we understand both her need and her strength. The cheerleading team as a whole is full of strong characterization: Hermione and Polly, of course, but also Dion, Mallory, Cameron, Tig. Even immature Leo grows up a little and sees beyond himself by the end. Some of the more minor tertiary characters are little more than names (Astrid? The Sarahs?), but they stay enough in the background that it all generally works.

The way that Exit plays with The Winter’s Tale also really worked for me (but I’ve not read it, only seen the version that my school put on last year). The characters were all basically pulled from the play, but made a little more ordinary and well developed. There were the people tieing the two works together, and emotional and thematic connections. It was never too on-the-nose, and it meant that a reader doesn’t have to have read TWT in order to appreciate Exit; familiarity deepens the reading experience, but doesn’t define it. The moments when the curse comes together with imagery from the play are my favorite. (The flower on Clara’s grave, Hermione’s refusal to be a statue at the end.)

So are there things that don’t work? There is some flat dialogue mixed in with all the funny. There were a few moments where resolution seemed a little too simple. The phone call at the end with Dr Hutt felt too quick and easily done to me, for example — and that should have been a bigger moment. Leo as a character fares a little better than Leontes, and Hermione’s inability to recognize his immaturity feels like a problematic blind spot…or a leftover contrivance from the play. Much as I absolutely adored Polly, her rebuttal to the reporter seems a little too perfectly worded for a teenager caught off guard by a terrible question about her best friend. (That being said, it was still an emotionally powerful moment, and satisfying to read.)

All of those problems seem really small, but I’m not totally sure I’m ready to call this a contender for the year. Maybe you all can catch me now, in the comments. What do you think?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I wasn’t very crazy about this book at first until it simmered for a few days and I had time to reflect on the power and redemption of strong friendships as support systems and until I discovered the Winter’s Tale connection. I think this one is a definite contender.

  2. Karyn Silverman says:

    Man, Sarah, we might need to break off this beautiful friendship, because WHAT?

    I found EXIT disappointing. The WINTER’S TALE connection seemed flimsy at best (although I don’t think I’ve ever seen it performed, so your note about emotional beats is fascinating). It seemed like a thin framework to hang a modern story, and distracted from the actual story with little to no discernible benefit. And while intellectually I understand that the point is not Hermione’s rape but her recovery — and the network of support that aids in that moving forward — there was something about the way she was insulated from what happened, because of not remembering it, that felt weirdly distancing to me as a reader. It was all so tidy and lacked emotional punch. And the dialogue was a little stilted too.

    Four stars notwithstanding, I don’t see this one as a contender at all.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      HAHAHA, I’ve been waiting to hear from you! <3

      I loved The Winter's Tale connection, because so much of that play is about everyone's perception of Hermione and her story. It was nice to me to be inside (book) Hermione's experience rather than have everyone talking about her — which is how the play felt to me.

      And as far as Hermione's (book, not play) insulation, that was another factor that actually worked for me. Many times we've read rape stories where people cannot get away from their memories; the details of their experience (understandably) dominates the story. This was a story where the details *can't* dominate the story — they are not remembered — but the experience still has a huge effect on her life. It's a good reminder that survivors experience their aftermaths in different ways, that there's no single rape story.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        100%. But as is so often the case, what’s realistic and true to lived experience isn’t necessarily the greatest literary choice.

  3. Tenisha McCloud says:

    Echoing what Karen said about the stars – this to me is a perfect example of how stars can be a little misleading when it comes to Printz and other awards. This novel deserves stars for being a really good, well-written book that should be in most libraries serving teens. But is it Printz-worthy? I’m not very convinced. The exposition is quite strong, and I was hooked immediately. There are a number of positive aspects to the book, such as the strong friendships and support systems that Anne mentions, and the wonderful descriptions of cheerleading and the cheerleaders.

    However, from approximately the halfway point in the book forward, it went from being a great book with potential award discussion to a solid, good book. About the same as a movie review that’s given 3 stars. Johnston’s novel simply doesn’t sustain itself, despite the strong characters, premise and setting.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of backlash on this one. I’ve talked to several people who are victims of rape who find the book’s treatment of it offensive. The fact that Hermione is barely impacted emotionally by the experience is misleading and mitigates how traumatic rape actually is. And personally, I found the writing mediocre and the character development lacking. This does not say Printz at all to me.

    • Michael Clark says:

      Interesting, I found her to be a very pragmatic driven character (very well established early on) who reacted in the way that I think similar friends I know, one in fact who was raped, would act. That’s in fact what I found so remarkable about it. Sometimes there are episodes that bury people in life and then there are people who refuse to be defined by an traumatic event. She is a survivor in the truest sense and a big part of that is because of her friends, family, team, coach, minister, the police officer and the medical team who were there for her. As for the writing I found the voice very naturalistic, strong, believable and Canadian in a way I can’t completely explain. Perhaps I imagine them being of sterner stuff than in the USA – very Orphan Black Sarah for those who watch. There was very much a similar voice in Chrisse Hynde’s memoir this year about her rape and she got slammed for not portraying herself as enough of a victim.

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    I have to agree that whenever I hear of backlash against a victim of any crime who doesn’t “act appropriately”, whether in fiction or in real life, I immediately find myself cringing that there is one way to react, to portray, to survive. That’s BS, plain and simple. And mightily offensive in its own right.

    • Agreed, Brenda. There’s more than one way to process trauma… and not just the trauma of rape. The trauma of abuse, war, etc.

      It took me five years to begin processing my trauma, but I have no doubt that people who have faced similar trauma grappled with it faster… or slower.

  6. this is a super late comment but i just read this post and wanted to say my piece, as i had many thoughts about this book! gonna copy and paste from my own blog post:

    “i felt like i SHOULD have enjoyed EPBAB, and i recognize that the prose is quite good, but in the end it left me very cold, because i think that ultimately it’s a cold book. i appreciate what johnston was trying to do in her portrayal of, basically, a fantasy of how people SHOULD act when someone they know is raped and how it like casts into harsh light how people actually DO react etc etc, but in the end i couldn’t connect to it. i think that stems from the, to my mind, very odd choice of having hermione basically be… untraumatized by her rape, because she doesn’t remember it, because she was drugged and passed out. i’m not going to go so far as to call this offensive (even though typing it out like that, it seems REALLY fucking weird) because i’m sure that’s been somebody somewhere’s actual reaction and idk what the author has been through and blah blah blah, but it meant that there was a hole in the middle of the book (in my opinion of course). basically, irl the aftermath of rape isn’t hard bc people react badly – that makes it a lot worse and harder to get over, obviously, but ultimately it’s hard because rape is traumatizing. by eliding any trauma on hermione’s part (basically one tossed-off line about sleeping being weird now – but seriously, it’s very clearly stated that hermione is behaving as if a close friend was raped, not as if she herself was, and you’re not meant to think she’s burying trauma – she’s just Not Traumatized), johnston avoids doing any heavy emotional lifting and the book just becomes a sports story about a girl with some really good friends where the characters speak in perfectly formed supportive sentences (REALLY clunky, on-the-nose dialogue – the crying teenage girl who says “and then the bastard raped you” stands out for me months later as being So Bad). this is really, really an issue book, which is fine, but it’s a issue book that’s so far removed from real life it just feels alien, which makes the speechifying seem cringey and weird.”

    might be in the minority here, but that’s how i felt. just an odd, unsatisfying book for me, with some fairly objective flaws in dialogue and pacing.

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