There have been countless school shootings in the United States and hundreds if not thousands of lives have been lost in those massacres, but the base for That’s Not What Happened comes from the most infamous of them all: the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. There’s a myth that victims Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott declared their devotion to God before their deaths and were killed because of it, but Cassie’s has been thoroughly disproved and I hadn’t even heard of Rachel’s before reading this book, so I’m inclined to believe it didn’t happen either.
This matters because narrator Leanne is living that myth when her best friend Sarah is said to have made such a declaration before her death and Leanne knows she didn’t. She was there. But fellow survivor Ashley overheard somebody doing so and mistook their voice for Sarah’s, so Ashley spread the word and it became fact. Leanne just wants to get the truth out there so Sarah is remembered truthfully, but that brings her into conflict with Ashley, the rest of the town, and Sarah’s own parents, who have largely been able to cope because of Sarah’s myth and refuse to believe it didn’t happen. It’s a horrific, familiar illustration of how malleable facts are in modern times and how plenty are willing to stick to a lie even when they’re confronted with the truth.
But Leanne’s motives don’t have much to do with Sarah at all. Like her fellow survivors Denny, Eden, Miles, Ashley, and the no-longer-around Kellie, she’s desperate to reclaim her own story from the media coverage of the past and the coverage that will come with the book’s Sarah’s parents plan to release about their not-martyr daughter. This diverse cast is well-drawn and they pull each other out of their own personal dark places, like Eden’s growing drinking problem and the inner torment Miles feels because the stories about him were both hurtful and very, very wrong. I can’t emphasize enough how great a novel this is for making you think.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
Where the novel falters is how it feels caught between 1999 and 2018. Though some modern discourse surrounding school shootings pops up, like some claiming the shooting was a false flag and the survivors are “crisis actors,” social media doesn’t seem to play much of a role for anyone. It’s one thing if it’s just for Leanne, but none of the others seem to mention it either. This is a book very obviously inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the myth of Cassie Bernall’s/Rachel Scott’s martyrdom, but how we talk about those mass murders has changed a lot in 20 years. This book doesn’t quite reflect that.
That’s Not What Happened did what great books do by making me rethink my perspective and the way I consume media–specifically media about school shootings, the survivors’ stories, and how those survivors are portrayed. It took me back to the experience of reading the Parkland Speaks anthology, which was true to the survivors’ experience and allowing them to be heard exactly the way they wanted to be heard instead of their experiences being defined by outside forces. (By horrific coincidence, Parkland happened just months before Keplinger’s book came out.) I recommend it and I recommend That’s Not What Happened in equal measure.