Hi everyone, today I have reviews of two recent YA books to read on sexual assault: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith and Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnson.If you’ve read this blog recently or follow me on Twitter at all in the last year, you know that consent and sexual abuse are issues that I care very deeply about.
I’ve chosen to bundle these reviews together because they deal with the rape of teenage girls in two vastly different, but equally honest and thought-provoking ways. It’s fascinating to read them together and to see just how wide the range of reactions can be – and how much more we can do to help survivors of sexual assault.
Two warnings: 1) there is obviously going to be a trigger warning for any kind of assault for both these books. Some parts also include alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and profanity. 2) light spoilers: I can’t do proper analysis on these books without some detail on what happens before, during and after assault.The Way I Used to Be
Author: Amber Smith
Find the author: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: March 22nd 2016
Source: ARC from publisher (thank you!)
In the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.
Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.
What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.
Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.
Review: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith is a completely raw story of how one moment can warp and change your entire life. Let me tell you now: it is not for the faint of heart. I had to take breaks from reading because I would get incredibly upset and frustrated at just how disastrous the effects of rape and its associated trauma can be.
That said, if you can brave your way through it, The Way I Used To Be is one of the most affecting, painful and brutal stories you’ll ever read. This story is all emotion, that dares you not to understand and empathize and FEEL something for Eden, the protagonist. It’s a story of not just sexual assault, but how trauma plays into our lives and won’t let go.
The story plays out in four sections, each representing a year in Eden’s high school life. It starts with Edy (as she’s called as a freshman), a fourteen year old who wakes up in the morning after being raped by her brother’s best friend during the Christmas holidays. She doesn’t really know what is happening, why she didn’t yell or scream or do anything. And she doesn’t know why she can’t say anything to her mom when her mom comes in and sees blood on the sheets. Edy’s mom assumes it’s an accident from her period. Edy is frozen and she can’t say why she’s not feeling right. Her brother, her best friend through her life, doesn’t seem to get it. Her mother doesn’t ask. Her father has no idea.
So Edy buries it, deep down, even though every action that she makes from then on is protective, scared, off-balance. Her best friend Mara has a crush on a guy, and Edy is mean to him. Her good friend Stephen comes over to work on a project and she’s terrified. And no one can see, so Edy keeps it hidden.
I can’t explain how far this book goes in order to show Eden’s trauma. Reading each year of her life, as she starts to discover her own body, starts dressing differently, discovers her own power over boys – each part of it was painful and terrifying. Everything Eden does is based on her need to protect herself and forget herself – at one point, a boyfriend tells her, “it’s like you’re both really young and really mature.” Exactly.
It’s torturous to watch Eden find someone she likes and not be able to express care or trust. It’s miserable when she pushes her friends and family away and descends into casual sex, drugs, alcohol just so that she can forget. Every time I thought Eden had hit rock bottom, there was another level of darkness. Every time I thought she would say something, she couldn’t. But here’s the thing: you get it. You get why she can’t say the words that will save her. Because how can you save yourself if you don’t feel worthy of being saved?
As a reader, I questioned myself over and over: would I be doing the things that Eden did if I was sexually assaulted at 14? Would I have buried it? And every time I thought that I would be able to speak up, Smith would show me another reason why I wouldn’t be able to, why Eden had every right to be confused, scared and skittish.
If I have qualms about this book, they are both the best and worst things about the book. The main issue, for me, is that it was so painful to read that I don’t know if I could ever do it again. The middle sections of the book are long and drawn-out, with Eden often making the same mistakes over and over. While this worked for her character, I feel like it could have actually been edited down a little. I wouldn’t take away from that pain, but I did start to feel like I was just waiting to find out what would happen at the end.
Reading To Learn: Sometimes you read for pleasure, and sometimes you read to learn and find out about new experiences. I dare anyone to read this book and not learn something – about sexual assault, or about themselves, or about what to say to a survivor of sexual assault. You will be moved enough to get angry and want to make things right. Reading and sharing this book might be a first step.
The Final Word:
For me, this book was a visceral experience, from start to finish. It’s a book written purely from emotion. If you’re an all-the-feels person, this might be overwhelming. But if you think you can handle it, it’s an eye-opening read, and one that, I hope, will make it into a lot of teens’ hands.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear Buy It: Indigo.ca | Amazon.com | The Book Depository | iBooks | Google Books | Audible
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.
★ "Johnston’s clever—but never precious—update of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is unflinching but not at all graphic in its treatment of sexual violence.... Middle and high school readers will pass this powerful, engaging story around and around."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
★ "Fierce and gorgeously drawn, this is a rape story that doesn’t focus on victimhood."—Booklist, starred review★ “A beautifully written portrait of a young woman facing the unthinkable, this is a must-buy for high school collections.”—SLJ, starred review
From the Hardcover edition.
Review: Exit, Pursued By A Bear by E.K. Johnston
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston is not your typical book about sexual assault…if there can be such a thing. What I mean is, this isn’t an after-school special kind of book. The characters don’t change dramatically, and there’s no real revelation moment. There’s no lesson in this book – and rightfully so since the main character, Hermione, is probably one of the strongest and most supported, self-aware teenagers I’ve ever encountered in YA.
The novel starts with Hermione, co-captain of the Palermo Heights cheerleading team, going to summer cheer camp with her team. In Palermo Heights, the cheer team is THE sports team – they are the jocks everyone looks up to. So Hermione is super popular and pretty confident, but also fiercely devoted to her sport and to winning nationals in her senior year. During a cheer camp dance, Hermione is roofied and raped, then left in the lake nearby, unconscious.
What makes this story so interesting is that after Hermione’s assualt, she can’t remember anything. She knew that something was wrong with her when she drank out of a cup slipped into her hands, but she can’t remember the perpetrator or the actual event at all. This is fascinating because it makes the assault seem almost divorced from her – at one point, she says, “[U]nless I think about it, or someone reminds me, I have trouble remember that I’m a victim at all.” And because of that loss of memory, Hermione is able to cope in a way that is so strong, honest, and fierce – but also complex.
I can’t say that much more about the plot, but it’s one that I felt was so different and so honest about Hermione’s situation. E.K. Johnson has gone on the record as saying that this book is the most “fantasy” that she’s ever written: because Hermione gets the help and support she needs. For me, Hermione is not an everywoman, but she and her family, friends provide us a strong example of what to aspire to. Yes, there is some of the expected “asking for it” dialogue that is part of rape culture, but Hermione and her friends shut it down pretty quickly. This whole book, and how Hermione deals with her assault is truly amazing and empowering. If something this sh*tty happens to you, the best you can hope for is that your friends and family believe you and give you every support and belief in yourself that they can.
Cheerleading as Sport: One of the things I loved about this book is that it takes cheerleaders seriously as athletes. In this book, the cheerleaders are the most popular people in school. People come out to see them cheer, not the basketball team play. And the book treats them like the athletes that they are – boys and girls who are real sizes, who eat real food, and who are tumble, do gymnastics, dance, and compete in some pretty serious competitions. As a former high school cheerleader, I really appreciated this. Cheering is HARD, yo. (watch the video below if you don’t believe me!)
Shakespeare Retold: Believe it or not, this book is actually a retelling of The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare – which features a women accused of adultery by her husband, and smuggled out of his kingdom. To me, BEARS!! (as E.K. Johnson calls it) is actually more of an homage than a retelling, especially since she skips acts three and four of the play, but nevertheless, the references are there if you’ve read or watched the play (and not just in the title!), and they are pretty great every time you get them.
The Final Word
There are books out there that deal with the feelings of inadequacy, shame and guilt that sometimes come with sexual assault (see above). There are books that make you feel like you’re in it, and make you question just how you would act in that situation. And then there are books like Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which choose, deliberately, to show a narrative that is different. What happened to Hermione is horrific – there’s no denying that – but unlike other books I’ve read on sexual assault, this is not the narrative of a victim. It’s not a narrative where we as readers empathize. Instead, Exit Pursued by a Bear asks us to make the choice not to sympathize, but to find ways to help, support and empower a survivor of sexual abuse. To create environments where he/she is never afraid to speak up, and to listen, learn, and respect. And to act to help a survivor – however he/she might need it.
A few final thoughts
The sad and sick thing about these books is that they’re real. There are girls out there, every day, holding in secrets like these, and families who have no idea how to deal with them or ask the right questions.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network in the US tells me that 44% of assault victims are under age 18, and that every 107 seconds, another sexual assault occurs. 68% of sexual assaults are never reported, and a shocking 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. In Canada, Women Against Violence Against Women tells me that only 8% of sexual assaults are reported to police, and half of victims who didn’t report the assault to police said they believed it was “not important enough” or it was a “personal matter” that didn’t concern the police.
I know that these facts are terrifying, and a little strange on this blog. But I encourage you all – even if you don’t read a lot of contemporary YA, please read these books, or other narratives about sexual assault and consent, share and pass them around. And get these narratives out there. Let people around you know that it’s okay to talk about sexual assault and to voice your opinion – let people know that they have a right to be heard.
THE WAY I USED TO BE and EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR are available in bookstores now. Have you read either of them, or any other YA books about sexual assault or consent? If so, please share in the comments, and feel free to share your own opinions as well. I want this to be an open forum for anyone to share their feelings and thoughts.