What we saw: book review

Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

Warning: Rape. This is a book that is based in part on the events in Steubenville and the rape case there that hit headlines everywhere. 

What is this about?: This is the story of you and me and our attitudes towards rape, women and consent. We are drawn into the aftermath of the rape of Stacey Stallard, through the eyes Kate Weston who is one of her classmates. We watch Kate navigate the minefield her town becomes as they turn on Stacey in an effort to protect the hero basketball players who raped her. Kate slowly begins to question the narrative she is supposed to be supporting, and begins to understand what the truth is.

What else is this about?: Like I said above, it’s about us: readers and the things we assume and take for granted when we read about a case like that which happened in Steubenville.

Should you read this: Yes. Then tell everyone you know to read it.

Stars: 5/5

Blurb: 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.

Aaron Hartzler’s What We Saw isn’t an easy read, but it’s a book that should be read, whatever your age. I don’t think any review is going to properly encapsulate what it’s about; I do think it’s about having your own experience and facing your own assumptions about the events described in it.

As I said above, this is Kate’s story — and we’re Kate. We’re her when she asks the hard questions of her friends and backs down, or later when she argues with them about the narrative of the fateful night and the assumptions people are making about Stacey Stallard and how “girls like her” get raped.

When the book opens, Kate is trying to figure out her feelings towards Ben, a basketball player at school and her best friend since they were five. They’ve recently reconnected and Kate has discovered she likes him and the feeling could be mutual. It’s a normal, awkward sort of dance that makes you realise you’ve had this dance at some point in your life.

Then, Ben’s friends on the basketball team are arrested and the story breaks that Stacey has accused them of raping her at a party — one that Kate attended, and got drunk at as well, much like Stacey. That’s a realisation that is of import in this story and every rape case you read about: you and I and Kate could be Stacey Stallard or any rape victim.

What’s more important is that you know the characters who say that Stacey shouldn’t have done this or that or dressed that way — in all likelihood, you’ve said that one point in your life. You know people who’ve thought of rape victims that way. I was like that until I learned better. I still know people who think that way.

Soon it becomes clear that everyone has chosen a side and it’s not Stacey’s. The power in this book is that Stacey has a minor presence in it, and it’s important, I think, that Harztler is using an outsider’s POV in essence to tell this story. The story doesn’t play on your sympathies for a rape victim trying to comes to terms with what happened to her because Stacey isn’t in the story enough. Instead, we are Kate who begins to open her eyes to what Stacey (and rape victims) have to endure when they speak up.

The blurb does a little disservice to Kate in mentioning Ben as a reason for her trying to figure out what happened to Stacey. Sure, he’s part of it, but Kate is much more than a lovelorn teenager trying to figure out her boyfriend’s part in this: she’s a girl who is understanding how the world views her and other females. That there are rules, as one girl points out in the book, rules for what girls wear and do so they don’t get raped — and Kate is beginning to realise just how ridiculous those “rules” are, even as her town, her friends and the people she’s known for years insist those are rules for women.

It’s important to note that as well as her friends, Kate finds herself fighting the preconceptions within her family: with her brother who doesn’t think anything of rating girls at school like they were pieces of meat, or tweeting and commenting about a video of Stacey’s rape. And there’s her father who doesn’t want them to get involved in anything.

After this para, there’s a spoiler about the ending, but in the truth, the power of this book is that it is character-driven and not reliant on this plot device as much as you would have thought: but fair warning. 

The underlying plot in this book is a search for a video that everyone knows exists, but no one is stepping forward to talk about because the hero basketball players are in it. Kate’s story results in her coming forward with the video, but Hartzler doesn’t pull any punches — doing the right thing isn’t easy, but you do it because it’s the right thing. Kate and her brother reap the consequences of her decision to come forward with the video, and Stacey herself leaves town.

There are no winners in a story like this. This book is going to make you think again about the assumptions you’ve made in your life; about girls and women and what it is to be female these days. It’s also going to remind you that doing the right thing is never, never easy. But it must be done — for yourself and the next Stacey Stallard.

Have you read this? If not, I hope you give it a chance.

6 Comments

  • Annette says:

    I haven’t read this, but I have watched Veronica Mars and it has a similarly powerful message about rape. We need these kinds of messages shouted from the rooftops. As a woman, I am so pleased that AH has written this book. I loved your review and I’ll definitely consider picking this one up!

    • Verushka says:

      We definitely need more messages like this, Annette. AH has treated the subject carefully and thoughtfully and unfurled the plot in a way that made me wonder how people couldn’t realise these things. But there are people who don’t realise these things, and the good people aren’t always lauded for doing the right thing.

  • Oh man, I did have this for review, but after reading Asking For It which is pretty similar, I thought if I read this, too, my faith in humanity would probably be gone, and honestly I’m still reeling from it, because I honestly don’t think people take rape seriously enough, even women sometimes, and I know it’s a horrible thing to think about, because you think it won’t happen to you, but it’s definitely a real important thing to think about, even though it shouldn’t be. We should be safe, and if it does happen, we should be believed, we shouldn’t be made to feel like it’s our fault, and that goes for men, too. Like, take Asking For It and this, it doesn’t seem realistic that a town would turn against a rape victim, and with this, with people doing the right thing, it honestly sounds made up and it is so terrifying that it isn’t. I’m really glad this is not told from the victim’s perspective though, too. Because like you said, this is about us, for us, and the way we think, the way society moulds us into thinking complete and utter bullshit.

    • Verushka says:

      Last week I received Asking for it through a competition i’d entered and completely forgotten about. It’s so confronting how people think — and they think it’s the most normal thing in the world to blame a woman for dressing provocatively and getting raped. I read much of Asking for it thinking I’d like to shake some sense into these people, and then i’d realise this happened in Steubenville. IT happened. And I HATE (and think it’s about time) that this is seeping into our books, even though it should — I mean, that means it’s happening so much and it’s so prevalent that our “entertainment” is beginning to reflect our reality — which it should, but I hate that is, if that makes sense. SIghs. Going to take a time out and not read Asking for it straight away though.

  • I’ve been curious about this one but it sounds like it was so well done! Great review

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