Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel—inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case—will resonate with readers who've ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time. The party at John Doone's last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early. . . . But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills's shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn't have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate's classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can't be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey? And what responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw? National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti calls What We Saw "a smart, sensitive, and gripping story about the courage it takes to do what's right."
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What We Saw is a well-constructed cautionary tale—littered with all too realistic considerations and consequences to issues American culture tends to downplay, glamorize, and otherwise distort for a variety of reasons. At its heart, this is a story about doing the right thing—even when the right thing is unpopular and costly.
“What if it’s all true?”
“What if it doesn’t go away because it happened?”
“What if it goes away even though it happened?”
For the vast majority of this book, there is a persisting who-done-it element—first in regards to whether the boys accused of rape are guilty, along with the more close-up question of whether the main character (Kate) can completely trust that her boyfriend had no knowledge of the incident. Is Stacy telling the truth about what happened to her? Is Ben as good of a boyfriend catch as everyone seems to believe, or did he fail a serious test of character? These are the questions that will keep readers pressing onward through the small-town politics, biases, and intrigue.
What I Liked:
Hartzler’s writing style makes for a smooth, easy read. He also provides a number of solid, catchy quotes to spice up overtly teachable moments. Those who appreciate an exuberant and abundant use of metaphors ought to be thoroughly charmed.
The author doesn’t shy away in depicting this unsettling medley of rape-culture, victim-blaming, and the blinding extremes that sometimes result from the ethos of sports-worship. At the same time, readers are allowed a certain amount of emotional distance—shielded from the heaviness and agony that would have been inevitable had it been told from a victim’s point of view. Instead, the chosen perspective feels spot-on in balancing serious issues with mundane teenaged existence. It goes the extra mile of calling out the dangerously naive idea that “bad kids” can’t come out of stable, upstanding families.
Many readers will appreciate the sibling relationship portrayed between Kate and her younger brother. Her desire for him to not turn out to be a jerk, and the general proximity jostling between them, were perhaps the most realistic elements of this story. Their interactions provide a natural backdrop for examining how the objectification of girls lends itself to a numbing of empathy and can—potentially and insidiously—escalate.
“Not being able to say no isn’t the same as saying yes.”
What Didn’t Work For Me:
This is the kind of book readers have to be patient with. The tension doesn’t pick up until after page 50, and even after that the pacing is a bit stop-and-go.
Readers may find it difficult to get to know Kate or find her relatable. Her dreams, goals, aspirations, and personality took a far backseat to her romantic aims and to the plot at large. As a result, the telling often lacked the intimate depth one would expect from a first-person single POV narrative. Unfortunately, I never really felt like I was in her head or could anticipate her decisions. It was actually easier to like and understand Ben from seeing him through Kate’s obviously bias eyes than it was to form a connection with her. (Her parents suffered from a similar side character version of this cardboard-cutout syndrome, so readers may be able to blame it on heredity.)
Physical descriptions (especially involving adults) were fairly scant. There is a repetitious threading of certain sentences that goes a touch overboard, in this reader’s opinion. The effect is a literary tapestry that sometimes comes across as more busy than memorable. There is also a heavy reliance on social media slang, which may cause the work feel dated entirely too quickly.
CONTENT NOTE: It seems unnecessary to point out that this story contains sexual content—as a valuable portion of its theme involves multi-angled consideration paid to the concept of consent. For the most part it is handled with sensitivity. Casual teenage drinking is implied in the blurb, and realistically delivered.
It is unfortunately worth noting that this book also projects subtle yet consistent undercurrents of disdain toward Christianity. This comes across too much like author intrusion, and could prove alienating to some readers and stereotype-enforcing to others.
While certain elements get in the way of the storytelling this is, on the whole, a book that dares to address difficult-yet-necessary issues that teenagers are too rarely well informed about. I believe its greatest strength will be as a catalyst for initiating discussions—both between teens and, hopefully, the adults who care for them in the midst of today’s society.
This YA book handles some pretty mature topics. But it reflects the issues and problems many teenagers face. There is drinking, abuse, and assault. So this may not be a recommended read for younger adult readers. But staying true to reality, these issues exist in high schools today.
Aaron Hartzler accurately depicts both the compassion and ignorance a town or society has when a young woman is violently assaulted. You hear the echoes of “Nobody deserves to be treated this way” to “ She was asking for it.” At times this book was hard to read- but in a good way. It made me angry to see how ignorant both adults and teens were in this book. But I think it made me angrier to know that in today’s day and age we still have this ignorance. To me, this makes a great book. It makes the reader reflect not only on what is going on in the story, but what is going on in the world around them. This book once again sheds light on important issues that teens face today and the courage it takes to make a difference.
The writing is tight and consistent and really opens up readers to important dialogue. This well composed novel is sure to be the buzz this fall. This book will definitely stay with me for a while. This is one book I will share with friends.
deals with important issues
This book sounded like a powerful read just from the description but I was unprepared for just how much it would shake me. There were times when the conversations between characters were so unflinchingly honest that they were hard to read.
I really liked Kate as a character. I liked that she questioned things when everyone else jumped to the basketball players side and that she wanted to find out the truth, not for gossip, but because the truth needed to be told. She showed a lot of growth as she struggled with herself over what was the right things to do, who to trust, who to protect.
It was a fast read because I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to put it down. I wanted Kate to find out the truth and for someone to get justice. The book was based off a real case – which made it all that much harder to read, and the reactions of the people in that town definitely felt realistic. The good boys from good homes versus the girl in revealing outfits from a broken home.
This is the kind of book that can open conversations that need to be had. Nothing in this book was sugar-coated. It showed that words and actions hurt but so can doing or saying nothing. It showed how people can be very defensive about their own privacy but uncaring about someone else’s privacy. It showed how facts can be twisted to suit a need. It showed how slut-shaming and victim-blaming add to rape culture even if the conversations are only between friends. It showed a lot in its 336 pages.