Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler
Number of Pages: 336
Date Published: September 22, 2015
The party last Saturday night is a bit of a blur.
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, and begins to ask questions.
What really happened at the party after she left?
Who was still there?
What did they see?
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.
Trigger warning: Rape
Well, damn. After years of reading countless “inspired by real events” stories and exhausting three and four-star ratings on mediocre portrayals of today’s society, here is a book that has managed to fluently talk about the crookedness of humanity without compromising the essential elements of writing. It may seem like a regular young adult-thriller, but do not be fooled. This is easily one of those rare gut-wrenching reads.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Mom is always saying that, but most of the time, I think that’s exactly what people are asking us to do: Please. Judge me by my cover. Judge me by exactly what I’ve worked so hard to show you.
It’s probably obvious what the entire book is about, so how does it depart from books that persuade and advocate underneath its pages?
Sure enough, every other book has successfully delivered messages about the dangers of rape – how horrendous it is to be in the shoes of the victim, how assault isn’t always obvious, how a victim copes, etc. but what about modernistic and present-day views? What about victim blaming? slut shaming? Rape jokes? What about rape culture? Although it isn’t exactly something that is entirely new, it is a subject that is more often than not bypassed, normalized, or worse, considered completely trivial, and THIS right here is where this book comes in.
“Well, I just think it’s awful what that [spoiler omitted] girl is doing to them. Dragging their good names through the mud. If you ask me, they oughta arrest her mother and put that poor girl in a good Christian home.
Am I saying that reading this book would be eye-opening to a person who was in the past possibly unperturbed by this collective way of thinking? You bet I am.
Most, if not all, individuals in our present-day world are represented by characters and groups in the story. You have the suspects, the victim, the bystanders, the jokers, the authorities, the fighters, and those who have yet to find where they stand.
I love Kate. She is who everyone is most of the time – people who at first glance seem detached and indifferent but carry the nagging feeling of guilt and fear over something they find difficult to accept. I am pleased with her narrative and this novel’s gradual and speculative pace which, in my opinion, didn’t do much to reduce the supposed thrill/suspense whatsover.
I also loved the brief showcases of power from some of the supporting characters particularly Ms. Speck and Mr. Johnston. Mr. Johnston is probably the only character that saved this book from being entirely feminist, and yes, including his character and one of his last scenes is a praiseworthy feat.
“I just don’t believe [they] would have sex with a girl who told them no.”
“What if she didn’t tell them no because she couldn’t? What if she was too drunk to say anything?”
“And whose fault is that?”
Kate is a mirror to most of us. We try to be aloof and unbothered. We repeatedly convince ourselves that it isn’t a matter to be messed with, but there will always be that slow creeping fear and understanding that not doing anything makes us feel all the more powerless, and isn’t that a more terrifying thought?
This book is powerful. It does not hedge. It does not inform in moderation or attempt to rationalize motives and actions. It tells you a story and forces truths down your throat. It tries to tell you that “This is it. This is what it looks like. Open your eyes.”, and you are compelled to accept no matter how appalling it sounds. It hits, it punches, and it festers you with reality, and you’ll beg for a candy or a band-aid, but you won’t be getting any.
“Why does everybody say ‘feminist’ that way?”
“The way Dooney kept saying ‘herpes’ after health class last year. Like it’s this terrible, unspeakable thing.”
I have too many words in my head as of the moment, and I feel so tired from all the truth this book has so easily conveyed in 300 or so pages. This book is painful as it is true, and I feel nothing but gratitude towards the person who has managed to put one of the most alarming affairs of today’s society into writing. Thank you, Mr. Hartzler. I look forward to your next work.