I didn’t used to overthink my choices quite so much. Then someone made what I’ve always been told is a very important choice for me, and now I tend to overthink everything else.
—Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E. K. Johnston
It’s the beginning of Hermione Winters’ senior year in high school, and she and her best friend Polly are serving as the co-captains of their Canadian high school’s competitive cheerleading squad. While Hermione is very aware that everything will change after this year, she’s determined to appreciate and enjoy every minute of this time, in which everything is golden and she is at the very top of her game:
I keep my eyes closed and my sleeping bag tight under my chin. Will I ever have it this good again? I will wake up somewhere new this time next year. I have only a few more mornings in this world, in this world that loves me for what I love and for what I am good at.
One more minute. One more.
But then, at the end of a multi-school, two-week intensive cheer camp, Hermione drinks something at a dance and blacks out. She wakes up in the hospital the next day, and is informed that she was found in the lake, and that she’s been raped.
This book, more than any other I’ve read—with the possible exception of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me—both acknowledges and celebrates the badassery, bravery, and grueling athleticism that cheerleading requires. It showcases the trust that the team members must have in one another, the precision and timing involved—after all, what goes up must down—and the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological work it takes to make it all LOOK easy.
It also, though—mostly through Hermione’s private therapist—shows the derision with which cheerleading is treated by outsiders, the lack of respect that it gets from the larger sports community, and how that makes the team’s passion and commitment that much more impressive. (If you’re up for a tangent, think about the parallels between cheerleading and writing for youth: both are female dominated; both are considered less-than by the majority of the larger establishment. Children’s and Young Adult authors often get asked “When are you going to write a real book?”; similarly, Hermione on cheering, Apparently it doesn’t matter how hard you work: As long as you’re a cheerleader, you will never be a real athlete.)
So very many girls who deal with sexual assault and its aftermath have to process and heal while also dealing with so, so many other things—not being believed, poverty, strife at home, any number of -isms—and they have to do those things on their own. Hermione’s huge support network—from her high school guidance counselor to her private therapist to her best friend to her teammates to her coach to the minister at her church—allows Johnston to focus almost entirely on Hermione’s arc of healing. Which gives Hermione—even though she is dealing with a very serious trauma—an enormous amount of privilege.
Along those lines, in dealing with a horrible act of violence, Hermione’s path has far less concrete obstacles than many: American readers from some states may be especially surprised by the relatively quiet abortion scene, for example. But, in a way, this book reads like a version of This Is How Things Should Go When Crimes Are Committed, rather than a picture of how they actually play out in the current day. And you know what? There can actually be a strange comfort in thinking about the way Things Should Be. I can only speak for myself, but reading this book at a specific time in my life would have been a comfort.
Which isn’t to diminish the amount of anger in this book, fury at violation and betrayal and unfairness. Johnston points out some of the difficult lines girls are forced to walk—that being assertive is often interpreted as being humorless, that they are forced to carefully pick and choose their battles in order to remain “likable.” This exchange between Polly and Hermione made me laugh out loud:
“I can’t watch CSI anymore, you know. It makes me too angry.”
“Sorry, I say, grinning so she knows I don’t really mean it. “I know you loved that show.”
“Shut up,” she says. “I’m being profound.”
But it, along with a back-and-forth between the girls and a journalist, also highlights the danger of the narrative that various crime dramas like CSI and so many media outlets perpetuate: that when it comes to sexual assault, it is somehow the victim who is at fault, and it is the victim’s responsibility to not get raped, rather than purely the perpetrator’s decision to commit a crime.
The friendship between Hermione and Polly is lovely, especially because they know that they’re a forever friendship, one that will transcend time and distance and romantic partners. Hermione’s characterization is also wonderful—she’s so used to smoothing over difficult situations that she ends up reassuring the police officer who is supposed to be reassuring her—and seeing her process and analyze not only her situation, but her own varied responses to it, is fascinating and emotionally engaging. Johnston touches on the difference between compassion and pity; about how Hermione feels somehow contagious when she notices that people have stopped touching her; about the strange resentment that can come from realizing that your own, very personal pain has changed the lives of other people.
There’s so much more to discuss and unravel—I didn’t even get to the Shakespeare!—but I have to stop SOMEWHERE, and you should go and read it for yourself. Like, right now.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.