Published by HarperTeen on September 22, 2015
Genres: contemporary, realistic fiction
Pages: 336 pages
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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 Kate’s keys and getting her home early, the feeling that maybe Ben is 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.
If What We Saw isn’t already on your radar for September 2015 releases, it should be.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it – the book, for the most part, centers on the rape of a high school student by a group of her peers and its effect on her community – but it’s a good book and an important one, and you should read it. If you’ve ever wanted a book that unpacks and critiques rape culture, What We Saw is here and it’s a good start.
Here’s the premise of What We Saw: high school junior Kate Weston wakes up the morning after a party with little memory of what happened the night before. While Kate’s concerns are initially about herself (did she drive herself home? Is her car across town? Does Ben Cody, longtime good friend and fellow scholar-athlete, like her?), her focus quickly shifts. The next day at school, all anyone can talk about is the party and Stacey Stallard. Kate sees a picture of Stacey, passed out and slung over a fellow classmate’s shoulder, while another classmate leers in the background. Stacey becomes the subject of much of the student body’s derision – for what she’s wearing, for smoking pot, for dating broadly, for being from a lower-income family, for being sexually active – and this only increases after she presses rape charges against four student athletes who sexually assaulted her during the party. No one at school or in their small community seems to be on her side, or curious about her side of the story, or skeptical of the athletes’ claims except Kate and another friend. Added to the mix is the fact that not only are the students four prominent athletes from the much-loved high school basketball team, the Buccaneers, but one of them in particular, John Doone, is really well-connected in the community.
What We Saw isn’t so much about what “really happened” the night of the party. (Note: I felt a bit worried about this going into the book. But while Kate is unsure about what happened, it never felt to me like the book wasn’t on Stacey’s side. I am pretty glad about this because a book that questions the victim’s narrative is not a book I’d be into.) Instead, What We Saw is more about why people fail or refuse to see what happened, why they don’t look closer, and why they don’t question the dominant narrative. It’s about, maybe, why people see what they do? While it might be true that “the closer you look, the more you see,” as the book’s tagline indicates, What We Saw is also curious about what’s outside our field of vision. What does it mean to see something? What gets left out?
I think this was the strongest part of the book for me – basically, how much work Hartzler puts into showing how pervasive rape culture is in contemporary American society. He does this subtly and effectively by drawing attention to the seemingly minor ways we absorb misogyny every day – for instance, throughout the book, he provides lyrics for the songs that characters are listening to on the radio that become newly unsettling in the light of the main narrative (like Pitbull’s “Timber” – “She say she won’t but I bet she will, timber,” or Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” – “She can be my sleeping beauty, I’m gon’ put her in a coma”). And it’s everywhere in this book – sports culture, music, Twitter, Instagram -when a school assembly asks for prayers for the athletes and not the anonymous victim; when our protagonist’s younger brother starts ranking girls on Facebook with friends; when Twitter explodes and hurls abuse towards Stacey for daring to accuse four basketball players of rape; when, immediately following the mention of these allegations at an assembly, a coach asks, “What do we do to losers?” and the gathered student body responds, “We BUCC ’em!”
I won’t spoil what happens at the end of What We Saw for you, but I will say that I really liked the way Hartzler brings the novel to a close. The novel asks us, through interludes that take place in Kate’s science classroom, how we know what we know about the world around us – how do we know, to use the novel’s example, that Iowa was once an ocean? How can we know that change happens? What does evidence look like? What do we do with knowledge, once we know something? I thought this was a really skillful way of framing the conversation, because, as I mentioned earlier, it moves the focus away from ferreting out what the truth is (the evidence is there from the beginning of the book, we know what happened to Stacey), and instead asks how we know what we know. Or more specifically, why characters don’t see the truth – or refuse to see it, as Stacey’s classmates and peers refuse to acknowledge what’s happened to her and victim-blame the hell out of her instead.
While I thought this book was really well done, I did have some minor quibbles with it. If I found any part of the book lackluster, it was Kate’s relationship with Ben Cody. But the book isn’t really about that, so, it’s fine. View Spoiler » They get together at almost the beginning of the novel, so there isn’t really time for me to feel invested in their relationship. And it just makes what happens at the end less significant to me? – Kate finds a video of the rape, and sees that Ben was there watching for at least part of it – and despite his protestations, breaks up with him and goes to the cops. It’s a big deal? But if I’d been more invested in the relationship, it would have been even more so? « Hide Spoiler But if you’re at all interested in reading a smart and incisive critique of rape culture, you should read this book, and let me know what you think of it when you do.
Is anyone else interested in reading this one? What do you think?