“Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” Hmmm… where have I heard that before? It sounded like a Shakespearean stage direction, and it seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it… so of course I looked it up. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s from The Winter’s Tale. Ah, now I see that it’s no wonder that my memory was vague, since it was ten years ago when I saw this play at Weston High School. And I had even concluded my review at the time by quoting that line.
OK, so where are we? In this case Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a book title. It’s a supposedly YA (“young adult”) novel about a Canadian cheerleader named Hermione Winters whose high-school team is the Golden Bears — get it? — seemingly a retelling of the Shakespeare story but in reality an entirely new story inspired by The Winter’s Tale, with some plot similarities and with many similar character names. Author E.K. Johnston is fittingly from Stratford, Ontario, but I think that that’s not as coincidental as it looks since it was probably what inspired her to use a Shakespearean play as her jumping-off point. Anyway, you may wonder about my saying that it is supposedly a YA novel. It’s not just because it’s also appropriate for adults, as is often the case for YA books. It’s also because of the subject matter: dealing with rape. Somehow the author manages to convey the seriousness of the situation without being depressing or excessively dark. In fact, Johnston has written a novel that is, if anything, too optimistic — not exactly cheerful, but it could easily have been much darker. And speaking of cheer, I learned a lot about cheerleading from this novel, at least one point of view about cheerleading. Maybe it’s different in Canada. Maybe my experiences watching George W. Bush as head cheerleader at Phillips Academy have warped my ideas, but I still found a lot to learn from Exit, Pursued by a Bear. I don’t want to say much more, since almost anything else would be a spoiler.
If you’re with me so far, you’re probably wondering why the title of this piece first mentions Dare Me, which must also be another book title since I’ve italicized it. And so it is. Oddly, given the subject of Johnston’s book, Megan Abbott’s Dare Me is actually a darker story. The connection is that both novels are about high-school cheerleaders, and both have similar portrayals of all-consuming competitiveness which might (or might not) be accurate in real life. The main differences are that Johnston is a better writer, that her cheerleading square is coed (Abbott’s is all girls), and that parents are almost completely missing from Abbott’s book. The portrait of the cheerleading coach is also over the top in Dare Me. But reading the two novels back-to-back is both illuminating and interesting — especially since I read Dare Me first. I recommend doing likewise.