Saturday 21 November 2015

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Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

What We Saw by Aaron HartzlerWhat We Saw by Aaron Hartzler - 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.
From Goodreads.

I can't remember how I stumbled across What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, but when I did, I didn't waste any time pre-ordering the eBook. Not only was it the perfect fit for Sex Crimes in YA within my Sex in Teen Lit Month II event, but it also sounded really fascinating; a novel about rape culture, told from the perspective of someone not directly involved in the rape, but an acquaintance of both the victim and those accused. This book has got to be one of the most incredible books on rape and rape culture I have ever read.

When Kate goes to a house party, she gets very drunk very quickly and has to leave early. Over the next few days she hears rumours about how Stacey, a class mate she'd shared shots with, was completely wasted and all over the guys. Then a photo emerges of her, unconscious, dangled over the shoulder of one of the school's star basketball players, without her top on. The very next day, rape charges are filed against four guys in school. Everyone is livid; how dare she? These guys' futures are on the line! The school's chances at the basketball tournament they're due to play in are low without them! Why'd she get so drunk, wear revealing clothing and chase them if she didn't want it? She's a liar; a slut who regretted it later. Kate can't help but feel ill at ease with the scorn felt for Stacey and the support for the boys accused. She was very drunk that night, would she have deserved it? Kate is desperate to know the truth, because she doesn't know what to think, but "the closer you look, the more you see," and once you've seen, you can't un-see.

This book is amazing! Seriously, I cannot begin to tell you just how incredible this book is. It was so interesting having the story told from Kate's perspective, because she gets to be right amidst rape culture in action, rather than hearing it second hand, like a victim who's avoiding it all might. It's so much more shocking to see Kate in conversations with her class mates, and hear what they're saying. I was so unbelievably angry the whole way through this book, but also thinking, "YES!" the whole time, because Hartzler shows us exactly what people are like. Even more, he holds up a mirror to us, showing us our own behaviour, our own thoughts, how terrible we as people can be.

What We Saw was inspired by the same real case as Louise O'Neill's Asking For It; the Steubenville Case. The general, basic plots are almost identical; a girl goes to a party wearing revealing clothing, gets extremely drunk, and comes on to the guys at the party (though I should state in What We Saw, it's not clear exactly whether Stacey came on to anyone, there are just rumours that she did). The difference is the perspective; the rape victim, Emma, in Asking For It, and an acquaintance of all involved, Kate, in What We Saw – and this difference makes these two stories so incredibly different.

What's wonderful with Kate being the narrator is it's easy to imagine being her; just a teenage student who went to a party held by school mates, a student who hears rumours about what happened later that night when back at school. It's an easy situation to imagine, most of us have probably been there. But by having this story narrated by Kate and not the victim Stacey, Hartzler has you asking questions of yourself about what you'd think or what you would do in her position. Who would you believe? Would you question? Would you worry about your own safety that night? Would you ask "what ifs" about if you hadn't been taken home when you were, if you stayed being as drunk as you were, could it have been you instead? Would you go with the crowd, the school, the community in supporting the town's star basketball players that are finally going to take your team far, because it's easier, or would you ask questions? Even though it has nothing to do with you? Even though you weren't there? Even though it doesn't affect you? Or does it? Can you live with not being sure? Live with possibly being around rapists? What would you do in Kate's position? It's so affective going along with Kate and asking yourself the questions she asks herself, watching her go back and forth, but always really uncomfortable about the whole situation, and feeling that something isn't right, but she doesn't know, she wasn't there! It's just amazing!

I read this on my Kindle, and thinking of this review, I bookmarked pages I wanted to quote. Looking back now, I have thirty-eight bookmarks. Thirty-eight. That's how awesome this book is, I want to just quote the whole bloody thing to you! You must go read it, you must! But I will share with you just a few quotes to show just how brilliant it is. Kate is out shopping for a dress for the Spring Fling with her three friends Rachel, Christy and Lindsey.
'"Whose side are you on?" Christy asks. "I mean, Dooney and Deacon are morons, sure. But they’re our morons. They’re not animals."
"I know, I know," Rachel says. "It's just... why are we automatically assuming the guys are the ones telling the truth?"
Christy’s eyes go wide. "Excuse me? Did you see the skirt Stacey was wearing at that party? I have washcloths made of more fabric."
"Wait," Lindsey says. "Just because she's wearing skimpy clothes means what she's lying about those guys forcing themselves on her?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," says Christy. "It's Stacey's word against theirs. She's accusing them." Christy settles on a pair of platform shoes and turns to address me and Lindsey. "Look, this is not rocket science. It's common sense. If you don't want to work a guy into a lather, keep your cooch covered up."
"I just don't believe Dooney and Deacon would have sex with a girl who told them no," Christy says. "They could be with any girl they want. They're not that stupid."
"What if she didn’t tell them no because she couldn't?" Lindsey asks quietly. "What if she was too drunk to say anything?"
Christy shrugs. "And whose fault is that?"' (38-39%)
What We Saw is also an extremely feminist novel too, in other areas away from the rape, which just had me cheering. The following is an exchange between Kate and Lindsey after Kate discovers her brother Will has been rating girls photos on Facebook.
'"Will acted like I was a huge wet blanket because I didn't want him ranking girls in his class. It was like I was this big..." I search for the right word.
"Bitch?" Lindsey asks.
It stings even coming from her mouth.
"Yeah," I say. "I just want him to be a good guy, you know?"
"What bothered me most was how Will didn't get it. He didn't understand why I was upset that he was telling these girls they don't measure up. He acts like he has some natural right to tell them they should look a certain way. Why? Because he's a dude?"
“"It's not just your brother." Lindsey stand up and stretches her arms above her head. "Seen Hardee's commercial lately? The whole planet is wired that way."
We walk to our cars, and when I tell Lindsey I'll see her on Monday, she hugs me. She's not much of a hugger.
I smile. "What was that for?"
"For being somebody who cares about this stuff," she says. "Not many people around her do."' (63%)
And What We Saw also had me questions my thoughts on Grease, after Kate goes to see the school's production.
'Which is why I say the music is a problem:
It's so good that you forget the plot.
You forget that "Summer Lovin'" is the story of how hot and heavy Sandy and Danny got before school started. You forget that after exaggerating to the T-Birds how far they went "under the dock," Danny basically blows Sandy off. You forget that later, he tries to get her to have sex in his car when she doesn't want to.
You forget that at the end of the show, Sandy gives in.
Sure, Danny makes that half-assed attempt to join the track team, but you can tell he doesn't really mean it. Nobody at Rydell High expects him to change. For that matter, no one in the audience expects him to either. It's a funny part that we all laugh at. How ridiculous! Boys don't change for girls.
We all expect Sandy to do the changing.
And after she flees the drive-in movie when Danny pressures her to go farther than she wants to? Twenty minutes later, she shows up at the Burger Palace in skintight pants and a low-cut shirt. Her hair is huge, and she's wearing tons of makeup. She becomes exactly the person Danny Zuko wants her to be. She makes herself into the version of the girls that he's decided are attractive.
She doesn't ask him why he has the power to decide what she should look like. She doesn't say, "Okay. Yes, I'll go have sex with you now." She doesn't have to.
By curtain call, this music has made you forget the whole point of the plot—the takeaway of this entire story—which is that Sandy decides that what Danny wants is more important than what she wants.' (68-69%)
I think that might be enough, but you get the picture, right? This book is amazing!

This might just be the best YA novel I've read on rape and rape culture, because you're confronted with it almost non-stop, with very little let-up. There's no hiding from it, Hartzler make you face the world we live in, some of the darkest parts of the humanity, and forces you to look at yourself – can you see yourself in these disgusting people? I cannot recommend this book enough. Everyone needs to read What We Saw, and ask themselves these tough questions.

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Published: Ebook: 22nd September 2015, Paperback: 22nd October 2015
Publisher: HarperTeen
Aaron Hartzler's Website


  1. Fantastic review! I really liked this one too. I think it's an important book for teens to read.

    1. Thank you! Oooh, I loved it! Such an incredible novel! And I completely agree, a really important book to put into teens' hands!