Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

What We Saw
by Aaron Hartzler 

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."

(cover image and summary lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date:  September 22, 2015
Source/Format: ARC won from National Book Store Twitter Giveaway
Purchase links: National Book Store | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
Trigger Warning: rape
My Rating: ★★★★☆

My Thoughts:
Kate Weston got a bit hammered at a schoolmate’s house party and things that went down that night was all hazy to her. The details came bits and pieces to her through friends and social media on the next school day. She was all the more surprised when the police came to to arrest four boys from school for sexual assault charges. 

What We Saw is a lot of things. It’s about the confusion of being there but not exactly having the knowledge of what really happened. It’s about searching for the truth and trying to figure out what to do with it once you found it. It’s about how a teen’s decisions are affected or molded by friends, parents, adults, community and media. It’s about how those decisions can change everything. It’s also about first love, young dreams and teen angst against parents. More importantly, it is a book that gives a social commentary on rape culture. All of these seems to be too much to handle for one book but it all worked well for me.

Being narrated on Kate’s first point of view, her smart sporty voice feels authentic and real to me. It’s refreshing how regular and non-dysfunctional her family is but Kate still finds some things to whine about them. Just some typical teen stuff, right? The book is very character-driven. As Kate gets to know more and more of what really happened, she has to make some really tough decisions. With her relationships with parents, friends and boyfriend at stake, our heroine has to face that it’s not always easy to do the right thing. And being truthful is not often honoured and glorified.

Let me share one of shining moments that I love in this book. So, one of Kate’s classmate was being a jerk about the issue and their teacher, Mr. Johnston, schooled the class on how to properly treat a “wasted girl throwing herself to boys”. The teacher made it clear that a wasted girl is incapable of giving her consent and boys should not assume that she’s asking to be taken advantage of just because she is drunk and hanging around with them. He also pointed out that a man’s natural state is NOT a rapist. He then made the class come up with decent things to do to a drunk girl such as calling her parents, not letting her drive, providing her a safe place to sleep, etc. This scene is a perfect discussion that raises awareness about rape culture and it’s more powerful when you read it yourself. The book is so full of more shining moments like this all throughout, touching also on the role of the community, the mainstream media and the social media on this issue.

What We Saw is such an eye-opener. Another plus for your reading experience is if you love some display of bird symbolisms here and there. The book also employs the use of repetitive sentences throughout the pages to emphasize how some things are larger than life that we can’t see the changes happening to them: change in our relationships, change in our perceptions and opinions. My only quibble are the instances that I spotted the author’s shadows lurking in “as you know” sentences, Kate’s use of complete names when introducing new characters and a whole paragraph of explanation of what a line drill is in Kate’s thoughts. But those are minute and easily forgivable compared to the relevance of the book’s message. I highly recommend this book and its message needs to be spread out.
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