Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

Posted September 23, 2015 by Stormy in Book Reviews, Books / 8 Comments

What We Saw

by Aaron Hartzler

What We Saw

Expected Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen

Obtained Via: I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affected my final opinion of the work.
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Kate Weston can piece together most of the bash at John Doone’s house: shots with Stacey Stallard, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early—the feeling that maybe he’s becoming more than just the guy she’s known since they were kids.

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 question: Where was Ben when a terrible crime was committed?

This story—inspired by real events—from debut novelist Aaron Hartzler takes an unflinching look at silence as a form of complicity. It’s a book about the high stakes of speaking up, and the razor thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.

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!WARNING!: This book, and therefore this review, deals with themes of rape and distribution of child pornography of said assault. 

I remember hearing about the Steubenville rape case frequently when it broke in 2012. I was in college then, and it was not the first rape case concerning high schoolers I heard about, or the first that happened at a party, but it was the first case where some things just clicked for me. I always knew there was something, well, off, about the way society typically engages in dialogue about these crimes, but I didn’t really have the proper terminology to talk about it until then. It was the first time it all started really coming together for me–the way that sport culture and “boys will be boys” can so often play into cases like this, the way victim blaming is so pervasive and insidious you can grow up in a house where these types of crimes were talked about often(as I did, growing up as the daughter of a police investigator) and take years to realize it.

What We Saw is the story of a Steubenville type situation in a small town. The parallels appear deliberate(and judging that the blurb says the book is inspired by real events, I’m guessing they are just that indeed), so it’s easy for those memories of Steubenville news coverage to come rushing back to me. There are a good chunk of YA books that focus on sexual assault, but What We Saw isn’t about the assault, not really. It feels silly to type that because the crime is in the background of every scene in this novel and the story is never far from it. . . but What We Saw is much more about the rape culture that allows these crimes to not only happen, but to blame the victim and protect the perpetrators while doing so.

“stop chasing the narrative you want. Look at what’s right in front of you, for Christ’s sake. What do you gain by ruining these boys’ futures?” Sloane furrows her brow in concern and nods slowly, thoughtfully. “See, Wendall, the question I’m curious about is, what do you gain by protecting them?”

The narrator of this novel is Kate, who was at the party where Stacey was raped. However, Kate doesn’t really know what happened, as she was wasted early in the night and someone took her home before the assault occurred. As Kate struggles to figure out what this means about her community, the boy she likes(who she thinks wasn’t there. . . but yet has suspicions), as well as what it means for herself and her own safety. After all, she was just as drunk. Who’s to say it’s couldn’t have been her? And make no mistake, What We Saw makes Kate wrestle with these questions.

“You don’t get wasted. You don’t take off your top. You don’t flirt with raging drunks.” She leans in and grips the edge of the table, lowering her voice. “You don’t dress like a slut. You have to play by the rules. If you don’t, this is what happens.”

Normally, I’m wary of any book about rape that’s not from the survivor’s point of view. So often media coverage of real life rape cases focus so much on the perpetrators or the community that I get tired of it quickly, especially in books, because I never want to feel that a rape victim’s story becomes the property of someone else(this one was one of the issues I had with Fault Line, for example). However, in the case of What We Saw, I think it really does WORK because the emphasis is on the culture and how this type of culture can evolve. I’ve never seen a story about sexual assault treated this way in YA. All the Rage is a clear indictment of rape culture and includes the community aspect, but it’s not really about it in the same way What We Saw is. I think it’s important to have this type of book in YA, because these crimes don’t happen in a vacuum.

I also thought the addition of social media was vital in making this book so relevant to today’s YA audience. Since we have seen social media play a role in similar real-life cases, it makes sense for it to be included in this novel. While it actually didn’t pay as large of a role as I anticipated from the blurb, it all felt very true to me. Really, I thought What We Saw hit the nail on the head when it came to describing the environment these crimes flourish in. So much is covered here, from the entitlement boys often feel over women and how it starts much more innocently than rape(there’s a powerful scene where Kate finds her brother and a friend rating girls in their school and wanting to post the rating on the girl’s Facebook page, and Kate absolutely schools them), to slut shaming and victim blaming. It’s quite impressive.

What We Saw also flawlessly inserts discussion of consent(in both sexual and non-sexual settings, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen) and what it really means. There’s this great passage where Kate thinks about what saying yes means and if she wants to. The actual scene that leads up to is mostly fade to black, but I was impressed with how much realism was included in that discussion and the way it was treated.

Aside from the content, I also thought What We Saw was also structured rather brilliantly. I don’t mean that there’s anything abnormal about the structure–it’s pretty straightforward first person–but there’s all these threads and imagery Hartzler manages to weave throughout the novel. I’ve read Hartzler’s memoir, but I think I forgot how much I liked his writing style.

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What We Saw is a thorough exploration of rape culture and its contributing factors. It’s an important book and addition to YA. I thought it was pretty flawless in terms of writing and structure. It’s a 4/5 cupcakes, but the reason it doesn’t reach the full 5 stars is just because it’s not quite a 5 star read for *me* and not because of any inherent criticism in the text.

 

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4 Stars

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8 responses to “Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

  1. I JUST finished this book today and I think your review really hit the nail on the head. This book isn’t about the “crime” so much as it is about the rape culture (which I wasn’t expecting, as I thought it would delve more into a courtroom sort of setting, but it’s still really important). I thought the portrayal of how complex Kate’s ideas about what happened were, and the struggle of the peer pressure to want to victim-blame versus her gut instinct that something is seriously wrong was well done and important.

    • Stormy

      Yes, it’s definitely different than most YA books that deal with sexual assault. Generally I don’t like when books that are about sexual assault aren’t from the victim’s POV because I think it tends to feed into a lot of bad dialogue surrounding the way our culture treats the crime, but this book did it really well because it made it not as much about the crime but about the culture that allowed the perpetrators to almost get away with it.

  2. I’m glad you liked this!! I thought it was a powerful look at the way our society looks at rape and victim blaming. Although I thought the writing and message was great, at times it felt too lesson-ey for me. Maybe if it would have been from the victims POV I would have liked it better. Great review!

    • Stormy

      Yeah, I could see where it could be a bit heavy-handed at times. It’s funny, because generally I *hate* when books like this aren’t from the victim’s POV(like Fault Line, which I did not like), but in this book I thought it worked better because it shifted the focus. I could see it being less lesson-y if it had been from the victim’s POV, though.

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