No Cautionary Tale: E.K. Johnston's Exit Pursued By a Bear
In her latest effort, Exit Pursued By a Bear, E.K. Johnston opens up the complex and resilient inner life of an adolescent trauma survivor with the precision and dexterity of a surgeon. Titled after a stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Johnston’s novel offers the more intriguing story of the disgraced Queen of Sicily reincarnated as small-town high school senior cheer captain Hermione Winters.
Hermione’s story is one that begs to be told, particularly to teenage readers. As such, it is smart, sleek and void of saccharine. Though uber-popular and outwardly perfect, Johnston’s likeable protagonist shatters stereotypes and rises to the occasion when no one in the world would blame her for falling apart after being drugged and raped at her summer cheer camp.
“I wanted to write a book where the main character makes her own choices, and isn’t punished by the narrative for it,” Johnston said. “In media, we even see girls who choose consensual sex get some form of comeuppance, which is ridiculous. I wanted to write a book where a girl decides to have an abortion, and no one judges her for her business, not even herself. It’s not a true story, because it doesn’t happen, but it should, and that’s why I wrote it.”
Hermione speaks to the reader with the intimacy and immediacy of a best friend unloading in hushed tones too late at night as the summer draws to a close.
Where the action falters in verisimilitude, it makes up for in its capacity to serve as an inspiration for anyone who has ever felt defined by their circumstances, robbed of their right to choose, or unfairly accused of a violation they would not wish upon their worst enemy.
Johnston acknowledges that other characters’ responses to Hermione’s situation are idealized.
“[They are] ideal, no question,” the author said. “Mallory might have a typical response (she’s probably the most “normal” teenager in the book), and I like to imagine that the Reverend also reacts that way because of his theological studies (most Anglican Ministers have humanities training in addition to their Masters of Divinity, and I gave Rob basically every qualification that I could, even though he’s in a very small parish for his consequence), but definitely, definitely ideal.”
The novel challenges the bard’s treatment of women — somewhat of a leitmotif of Johnston’s, whose other titles, including A Thousand Nights and its forthcoming sequel, Spindle, also stand up to the built-in patriarchy of classic works of literature by translating them with a more modern lexicon.
“I think we spend a lot of time as kids internalizing the classics, being told they’re worthy and so on, and then at a certain point in our education, we start to ask questions,” the author said. “I know I did, at least, and my questions were usually some variation of ‘Why are these stories so terrible to girls (and women)?’ Retellings are an excellent way to bend the stories back, and I think Young Adult retellings are particularly fantastic, because you have all these very smart people (usually women), who are all, ‘You know what? The Grimms/Shakespeare/Walt Disney have had their go, and now it’s our turn.”
The novel shines a glaring spotlight on society’s long-practiced damning of young women who become pregnant outside of marriage and the “boys will be boys” attitude when it comes to the young men who impregnate them.
“‘Unwed fathers’ isn’t even a thing, and ‘single fathers’ are usually painted as superhuman heroes,” Johnston said. “There’s a very, very good moment in an early episode of Friday Night Lights (it might actually be the whole episode, my memory’s a bit fuzzy), where Lila is explaining to Tim, very slowly so that he will understand, that he will be a hero for nailing her while Jason was injured, and she will be an outcast. And then that is exactly what happens. That is exactly what always happens, and it’s freaking infuriating. I want to change that. I hope that BEARS!!! can help.”
Following in the wake of writers like Mary McCarthy, Judy Blume and Ann Brashares, Johnston’s examination of a life interrupted is the best kind of indelicate — it stares the reader down, packs a wallop and then, as unapologetically as it came, it saunters off leaving the rest of the world breathless and hoping for more.
Feature image VIA Penguin Teen.