I don’t want to sound overly dramatic when I say this, but I’m gonna go for it nonetheless: rape, or the possibility of rape, is such constant, persistent background noise in the life of most women that we forget the extent to which we negotiate around the threat. Even women who don’t consciously think of themselves as having ever explicitly feared rape or changed their behavior to avoid it will answer in the affirmative when you ask them more specific questions: do you and your female friends “rescue” each other in crowded bars when guys get handsy or aggressive? Do you hesitate to schedule service appointments when you’re home alone? Do you seek safety among the number of strangers? Tell your friends where you’re going when you go on dates?
Anyway. I say all of this because we do all of these things hoping that they will mitigate some risk to ourselves in those particular instances, but there’s nonetheless an unspoken acknowledgement that rape still happens, just maybe not to us, not that night. The fashion in which protagonist Hermione Winters was raped in Exit, Pursued by a Bear is one of the classic bogeyman scenarios: a drug was slipped into her drink, and she blacks out, remembering nothing. It works in this story because it allows for a very specific, very personal tale of one young woman’s psychological and emotional recovery, not terribly burdened by mistrust, bullying, and shaming. My reaction to this is conflicting and twofold: on the one hand, I feel like that story is horribly, painfully played out all the time in real life, where young women are mistreated by their communities and the public at large because they are imperfect victims who somehow invited what happened to them. I like that Exit, Pursued by a Bear did not make that a focus, but rather allowed Hermione to have a pretty unconditional support system so that the story could unpack the stops and starts of Hermione’s “return to normalcy.”
On the other hand, taking away some of the most pervasive, damaging, and common experiences of young women in the aftermath of their attacks — that they frequently lack the support and competent care of those who should be equipped to help them — sterilizes the story to some extent. It’s very nice that Hermione largely doesn’t have to worry about some of those things, but it feels kind of like an easier story to write.
And yet. Even the act of saying that seems like it implies that there is a universal experience or expectation for rape survivors, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I waffle.
The fact is, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is still plenty harrowing, affecting, and heart-wrenching. It’s the type of book I picture when I read that reading certain types of fiction increases empathy. I hope it finds its way onto high school summer reading lists (if not all the way into the classroom.) I want every girl to have a Polly of her own, and for adults to have role models like those portrayed in this book for how to be supportive of a young person in their lives who experiences something like this.
I don’t really know how to end this review. It was a good book and everyone should read it.