Title: What We Saw
Author: Aaron Hartzler
Published: September 22nd 2015 by Harper Teen
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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.
If you read one book this year, let it be this one.
I have always gravitated towards the very books that make me uncomfortable. The ones that make me question everything that society has deemed acceptable. The ones that take root in my mind. The ones that drive me to think.
Aaron Hartzler's debut succeeds on all of these accounts.
Unflinchingly honest in its delivery, What We Saw is based on the Steubenville High School rape case. While Faking Normal, Canary and Uses for Boys were narrated from the victim's point of view, What We Saw explored sexual assault from the perspective of the community. From consent, our ever prevalent culture of victim blaming, feminism to privilege, media's portrayal of sexual assault and complicity, Hartzler has woven a compelling and exceptionally powerful narrative.
The brilliancy of his prose is that it is an exact reflection of how media often portrays such cases. Nothing is as it seems and the more you look the more you see as a reader. Media's distortion of truth is shockingly common in sexual assault cases and What We Saw brings to light these shameful occurrences. The dialogue between the characters throughout the novel is a painful but realistic portrayal of our society's offhanded dismissal of rape victims. It brings to attention the fact that this is exactly how the community as a whole treats such incidents. The community's refusal to see the truth that's staring them in the face is shocking however it is an undeniably accurate representation of what happens often in the real world.
How often do we see people who would much rather pretend that such things didn't happen because it makes them uncomfortable to talk about it? How often do we meet people who are so adamant in such beliefs because it would shatter the very foundation of their belief systems? What drives people to blame the victim rather than see the truth? Is it the fear that they themselves could have easily been the victim?
Doesn't your cowardly silence show your acceptance of assault? Doesn't your 'Boys will be boys' argument perpetuate rape culture? Doesn't your casual acceptance of harmful pop culture perpetuate rape culture? Doesn't your offhanded acceptance of Blurred Lines promote coercion? Doesn't your dismissal of street harassment/catcalling encourage rapists?
Why is it that when a rapist is accused, you are more likely support them more than the victim? Why is that you'd rather ask the victim what they were wearing rather question the rapist? Why is it hard to comprehend that being intoxicated is not a yes? Why is that you as a complete stranger feel fit to question the victim's lifestyle rather than speak up for the victim? Why is that you'd much rather shake your head at the victim's sexy selfie rather than teach men to be accountable for their own sexual expression?
Hartzler's voice is a much a needed one in a world with so much institutionalized cowardice - A world where we question the victim rather than the rapist. The characters' unwillingness to talk about the crime in the novel is an accurate representation of our society. The exploration of the true meaning of consent - verbal and the less nuance ones was brilliantly executed. Having a younger brother of my own the dynamic between the narrator, Kate and her sibling resonated with me. One of the scenes between them explored the theme of casual objectification of women and the maliciousness of social media- Kate's anger at Will for 'ranking' women on social media was especially relatable. In Kate, Hartzler gives us an empathetic yet realistic protagonist who refuses to accept things at face value. I found her courage admirable as she struggles to fight her own prejudices and that of others to bring justice to the victim.
In a community that reduces the vicious crime of rape to a few minutes of evening news caught over dinner, What We Saw is a must read.
Some stories take root in our minds. Some stories spark conversations. Some stories propel you to change and take action. What We Saw is all of this and more.
“We feel a rumble now and then - a tiny seismic shift - a whispered reminder from the universe: given enough time, everything changes.”
I wonder which is worse: The fear of the unknown? Or knowing for sure that something terrible is true?
“You think what happened to Stacey was fair game. It was boys being boys. Just a trashy girl learning the hard way what can happen when she drinks too much and wears a short skirt.”FINAL VERDICT:
Aaron Hartzler's What We Saw is a highly important novel, perfect in its execution and astonishingly powerful in its delivery. Not to be missed.YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
OVER TO YOU:
Have you read What We Saw? Would you recommend any books that deal with sexual assault in an equally powerful way?