"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Monday, August 15, 2016

Exit, Pursued By a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Several months ago I listened to the audiobook production of E.K. Johnson's book Exit, Pursued By a Bear. I've been sitting on this review since that time because, frankly, I couldn't figure out what angle I wanted to take with the review since my feelings toward the book are ambivalent. I like the book, I gave it a rating of 4 stars on Goodreads, but I also had some problems with the book. These problems got me stuck. This review is my effort to get unstuck.

Roy Peter Clarke, the author of The Art of X-Ray Reading, encourages people who want to get more out of a book to use X-Ray reading techniques. One of those techniques is to pay attention to titles. What is the author trying to tell his/her readers about the story through the title? Today when I told myself I could delay writing this review no longer, I decided to investigate this very odd title; Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Since I listened to the book instead of reading the print edition, I couldn't look back in the physical book for clues so I looked on-line to see if I could gain some insights. For some reason I thought the phrase was from a poem. I started my investigation there. What I discovered instead got me all excited. The phrase "Exit, pursued by a bear" is one of the oddest stage directions ever given and it was done by Shakespeare in "A Winter's Tale." Directors are left to determine what he meant and how it should be carried out. Did he mean a literal bear or a figurative one? Should the exit be terrifying or comedic?

In an article published in the Baltimore Sun in 2002, Holly Shelby interviews several people at the Center Stage in Baltimore who were performing "A Winter's Tale" at the time, and asked them about the crazy stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear." First, they wanted us to know, one has to understand that "A Winter's Tale" is a very peculiar play. Shakespeare seems to tease his audiences with all kinds of misperceptions. "The bear makes as much sense as anything else," the director said.
"The bear is indicative of the show's entire aesthetic," says Charlotte Stoudt, dramaturg at Center Stage. "It's a narrative pivot point, the turn from tragedy to comedy in the play. It's crazy. It's campy. It's fun. It's scary. You have all these contradictory feelings, which add up to one of the best moments of the play."
Ah, I've got it. "Exit, pursued by a bear" is a narrative pivot point. In "A Winter's Tale" it is the point at which the action moves from tragedy to comedy. In the book, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, it is the exact opposite. It is very clear to me now how this fits with this book. Hermione and the other cheerleaders in the book are looking forward to  cheer-camp. Everything is going along just great until Hermione is slipped a "roofie" and raped by someone, probably a participant of the camp. Everything pivots at that point. Hermione doesn't remember the rape, except just snatches of her attacker's face because she was drugged. What starts out as a promising year ends up being a nightmarish hell with one very noteworthy exception, Hermione has wonderful and supportive friends who do not abandon her. In fact, in a lot of ways I think the book is less about rape and its ramifications and more about how to be a good friend.

It would take a very sophisticated teenage reader to pick up on the Shakespeare reference in the title, but teens certainly wouldn't miss the point that bad things could/would happen if one were pursued by a bear. Let's go back and see if we can gain any insight about bears from Shakespeare.
"In The Winter's Tale, the word `bear' has its own life, it's mentioned in the play about 12 times. It starts as a word meaning `take away' as in: `Bear the boy away.'' But by the end of the play, the word `bear' becomes about responsibility for one's actions and bearing them and bearing the weight of guilt. And in between weight and responsibility is the ferocious creature." -Baltimore Sun
Wow. All of the sudden the title of this book not only seems good it is almost perfect. Should we think of the "bear" as in a ferocious animal, or a rapist, as in our story? Or is it about "bearing", as in bearing the burden of friendship? And finally, though we don't really see this in Johnston's book, is it "bearing" the weight of guilt, as so many rape victims are left feeling? Or all three? Me thinks all three!

The next time you are stuck on a book review, let me recommend x-ray reading. I am not kidding. Suddenly the whole story makes sense and I am no longer ambiguous about this book. The author is brilliant (and so am I for figuring it out!) I think she wants her readers to know that even in the face of horrible, terrifying events they can be rendered bearable with the support of good friends. Do I think this should be a Printz contender?  Yes, yes I do. Read it and see what you think.

Rating: 4 stars
Source: Audiobook purchased with my own funds.

2017 Printz Award Contenders

26 / 35 books. 75% done!


  1. Great review! I plan on reading this one for sure!

  2. What a terrific review. You put a lot of time and thought into figuring that out! I also really enjoyed the book. I especially liked how it managed to confront "rape culture" without falling back on the trope of "raped girl gets bullied by everyone around her." I also left the book with a lot more respect for cheerleading. Plus, the lighting on the cover is beautiful.

    1. Thank you. As often happens, when I finally force myself to write the review I am able to bring into focus my actual feelings about the book.

  3. I also really liked this one though I can see how it's "too good to be true" since the MC has a huge supporting network.

  4. That is so fascinating! I knew the title was line from Shakespeare, but I didn't know about the theater connection. I really liked the book. I think he tough topic was handled so well. I also really loved Hermione's supportive family and friends.


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