I’m always thrilled to read books that my students recommend to me. Even when their tastes as readers diverge wildly from my own, understanding the stories that resonate with them gives me that opportunity to have a conversation about literature and tone and theme that might otherwise just be tuned out. I mean, come on, I love Shakespeare, but he can be a hard sell for a sixteen year old who wants to hear her voice represented.
Enter Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which obviously had me at the title–although the titular bear is, in this case, a high school cheerleading mascot. Placed in my hands by an enthusiastic student, this novel takes a common and extremely important teen literature trope of sexual assault and differentiates itself by giving the female character agency and a comprehensive support system. Hermione Winters (yes, I know, get past it) is preparing for her senior year and co-captaining her championship cheerleading squad with her best friend. At the end-of-cheer-camp party, someone drugs her drink, and she is violently sexually assaulted. There is no obvious perpetrator, and the plot of this novel is less focused on who did it and more about how you live afterwards. I literally read this in a single sitting because I wanted to believe that things would turn out happily.
What really struck me about this novel is how sadly unusual it felt to have our protagonist surrounded by people who love, believe, and support her. No one says she’s lying about being assaulted. The one person who implies that she was asking for it is immediately held accountable by others. Her friends do not abandon or betray her. Her priest does not insist on moralizing about her choices; her parents do not make her assault about themselves. She is not asked to believe that the rest of her life has been ruined, she is not discouraged from seeking justice. In YA literature, this seems revolutionary; these young women tend to be written ONLY in that way, and I think it’s valuable to hear a different story. The reality is that some girls who read this book will have been sexually assaulted, and others may experience sexual assault in their future. This book, while not a literary masterpiece, adds something valuable to the conversation by positing a society in which the reflexive response to a violent sexual assault is to SUPPORT THE WOMEN–their bodies, yes, but also their wills, their minds, their AGENCIES. It was a bittersweet reading experience, because I wished that every teenage victim of assault had this level of love and support. Three stars for the writing itself, but five stars for the attitude towards rape culture.