________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 35. . . .May 13, 2016


Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

E.K. Johnston.
New York, NY: Dutton (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2016.
242 pp., hardcover, $23.99.
ISBN 978-1-101-99458-0.

Subject Headings:
Rape victims-Juvenile fiction.
Psychic trauma-Juvenile fiction.
Cheerleading-Juvenile fiction.
High school students-fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Wendy Phillips.

*** /4



“Hey,” says a voice I don’t quite recognize amidst all the noise. A boy’s voice. “Looking for something?”

“The garbage,” I say. “Have you seen it?”

There’s something wrong. I wasn’t this tired until right this second. I shouldn’t be so tired. I should find Polly. Polly will know how tired I am supposed to be.

“It’s this way,” he says. He leads me away from the dining hall, where I know the garbage isn’t. For some reason, I can’t tell him that he’s going the wrong way.

There’s a moment when I know that I should scream. But screaming would be hard. And blackness would be easy. Black picks me.


For her last year of school, Hermione Winters is poised for triumph. Captain of her cheerleading team, and supported by loyal friends, a caring family and a hot boyfriend, Hermione is a flyer. Her goal for the year is to win the national championships for her cheer team.

     Then at cheer camp, someone puts something in her drink, and in one night she goes from golden girl to sexual assault victim. Instead of cruising to success, Hermione has to navigate a whole new reality, adapting to the effects of physical and mental trauma, and learning to reach out for help. In the process, Hermione discovers she is more than the labels attached to her; she finds an inner strength and a depth of friendship she never knew existed.

     The story is engaging, and the context of competitive cheering is developed with authentic detail. Boys are important members of the team, and readers who dismiss the sport as “fluff” are forced to confront their prejudices in the face of the athletic demands for all team members. Assumptions about sexual assault are also challenged: the effects are devastating, but the story clearly shows they can be overcome.

     Author E.K. Johnston touches on many important teen issues in Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Even the most privileged and fortunate girl in today’s world lives with the threats of sexual assault and relationship violence as well as eating disorders, gender orientation questions and friendship issues. The novel’s title, from a stage direction in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, suggests the dangers young adults face in the real world. The novel explores many of these, but Johnston clearly intends to demonstrate that teens can, and must, become more than the labels of what happens to them.

     Immediately after her assault, Hermione is surrounded by a powerful community of support: sensitive law enforcement officers and medical care, a committed and skilled psychiatrist, caring parents, coach, minister and teachers, and above all, a fiercely loyal best friend, Polly. These people are instrumental in helping Hermione patch her life back together.

     As the author mentions in the “Afterword”, many victims of sexual assault do not have this support network; they are isolated and unable to ask for help. The novel is a clear portrayal of the role of support and the friendship in moving past trauma to success. Hermione’s story is an empowering one of hope in the face of violence, an important and inspiring message of encouragement to survivors of assault.

     The writing is competent and engaging, and the story will appeal to teen girls in particular. A drawback to the story is the relative ease of Hermione’s recovery. Except for some conflict with her boyfriend, and communication challenges with her horrified parents, Hermione is the recipient of flawless advice, care and treatment by everyone around her. Her friend, Polly, never falters in loyalty, affection or even uncertainty. She is the BFF of dreams and often seems too good to be true. Hermione is disturbed by the labels she is given and suffers momentary panic attacks when reminded by the night of her attack, but one might expect more anger, fear and violation after such an attack. Clearly the author’s intent is to emphasize that, while sexual assault is traumatic, it is not insurmountable, but Hermione’s relatively smooth road to triumph makes the story feel overly didactic.

     Overall, however, Exit, Pursued by a Bear delivers an important and powerful message for teens. Absorbing and appealing, the story will engage adolescent readers in the tenderness of friendship, the prospect of recovery and the satisfaction that comes from justice. Teen girls will be inspired by Hermione who provides a positive role model, not just for survival, but also for triumph.


Wendy Phillips is a teacher librarian in Richmond, B.C. and the author of the Governor General's award winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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