Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 15th 2016
Veronica Mars meets William Shakespeare in E.K. Johnston’s latest brave and unforgettable heroine. Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don't cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team's summer training camp is Hermione's last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.In every class, there's a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They're never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she's always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn't the beginning of Hermione Winter's story and she's not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.
A Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s more bizarre plays. Simplified as best I can, it’s the story of King Leontes, who becomes convinced that his wife Hermione has been cheating on him and that the child she is carrying was fathered by his best friend, Polixenes. These fears are baseless, but Leontes will not be convinced. He denounces Hermione in front of the whole court, which sends her into labor. When the baby girl is born, Leontes orders her to be ripped from her mother’s arms and left in the woods to die. Hermione dies of her grief. Her handmaiden Paulina tears the king a new one in one of the best monologues Shakespeare ever wrote. And the infant princess is taken to the woods by Antigonus, who promptly encounters a bear, and exits, pursued by it. And gets eaten, but that happens off stage.
Sixteen years later, Leontes has regretted his actions and goes to search for his daughter, who didn’t die but was taken in and raised by shepherds.
Upon vowing to do right by his daughter as he didn’t by his wife, Paulina reveals a statue of the queen as a gift. Leontes falls at its feet, weeping with remorse, and the queen steps down off the pedestal, leaving it to the director’s interpretation whether the statue was brought to life by the king’s grief or Hermione was just playing dead for sixteen years.They all live happily ever after.
Like I said. Bizarre. But I have a strange affection for it. So when I found out that someone was modernizing it in a YA retelling, I had to read it.
Exit, Pursed by a Bear by EK Johnston, is not bizarre, thank goodness. I was braced for mistaken identities and faked deaths and other bizarre hijinks, but Johnston stays away from that. Johnston used her adaptation to give the two most interesting characters in A Winter’s Tale — Hermione and Paulina — the voice they so richly deserve.
Hermione Winters is the co-captain of the Fighting Bears cheerleading squad. Her life is good — the cheerleaders rule the school, she and her boyfriend Leo are doing great, she and her co-captain Polly are as close as ever and determined that their graduating class will break the one-death-one-pregnancy curse of their school.
Then Hermione gets raped at Cheerleading Camp. And she gets pregnant. And everything changes.
It would have been so easy to take this novel into strange and unrealistic territory. It would have been so easy to follow the events of the play a little too closely. Leo is still convinced that the baby isn’t his, and in this case he’s right, but his anger and jealousy toward Hermione are still just as inappropriate and out of place. Unlike in the play, though, in the novel, everyone rallies around Hermione. And that’s one of the stand out points of this novel for me. People are awkward around Hermione. People don’t know what to do or say. But the ONLY people treating her like her rape was her fault are the media and Leo, and it is made very clear that those people are in the wrong. That was refreshing and heartening.
The novel wasn’t perfect. There were some pacing issues, and the ending, while giving Hermione a wonderful moment of power that she absolutely deserves, felt a little too neat and convenient for me. But the strength of Johnston’s story lies in the adaptive choices she made. This was not a literal adaptation. No one got eaten by a bear, or escorted around by Father Time, and no statues miraculously came to life. But the spirit of those events was there. No bears, but a looming sense of doom chased Hermione throughout the novel. No Father Time, but time gaps and disconnects to facilitate mental healing were used to fairly good effect. No miraculous statues, but when Hermione is forced to return to the scene of her rape and compete in the competition she’s worked to win her whole cheerleading career, she breaks free of the events she was forced into against her will, and becomes a living person instead of a girl of stone.
The best part is, you don’t have to know A Winter’s Tale to appreciate this book and the conversation it asks you to have. But if you do know A Winter’s Tale, the book is even better.