Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

Title: What We Saw
Author: Aaron Hartzler
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Harper Teen

Quick review for a quick read. Note: Some discussion of rape and rape cases in this review, so possible TW for those reading this review.

This book is very hard to read, but I felt it was a necessary and completely compelling narrative. I’ll admit I didn’t hear all that much about Aaron Hartzler’s “What We Saw” before it was released, but it took my attention considering a number of horrifying cases of recent mention in media. This I believe was inspired by the Steubenville High School rape case, which I am still taken speechless at not only the lack of help for the victim, but the attempts to cover it up for the sake of the school trying to save face. It also brought to mind the recent Stanford rapist case where a young woman – inebriated and completely unconscious – was left naked by a dumpster and raped by a 19-year old swimmer, Brock Turner. It was only by the discovery of two Swedish students who saw Turner in the act that he was caught. The young men chased him down and held him until the police arrived. The sentence that Turner received for the crime? Six months. Six freaking months. The judge gave leniency on him (and has been reported to have given lenency in other sexual assault cases), Turner’s father and mother wrote letters that testified Turner as being the victim of this, and a *friend* of Turner’s wrote an exposition of how “drinking” was the real culprit and not Turner’s actions or lack of inhibition.

In my mind, I’m left wondering when we – as a society – are going to treat rape as the crime that it is. That women and their bodies are not objects to be taken advantage of or put on display or rated on a scale, that it isn’t fair to dehumanize or assume consent when they are not in a capacity to give it. Hartzler’s narrative explores many of these issues and rape culture in vivid detail – and the narrative doesn’t shy away from the details of this particular horrific case.

The story is told from the POV of Kate Weston, a young woman who was inebriated at a party. She doesn’t remember the details of the night, though her childhood friend Ben Cody was responsible for driving her home. Yet, following that night, Stacey Stallard accuses four of Kate’s classmates (also prominent players on the school’s basketball team) and starts a firestorm that culminates in a number of accusations, dehumanizations, and alienations in the aftermath, including attempts by the school (including the coach) to cover it up and move on for it in anticipation of its forthcoming championship. Kate struggles to know what to believe, witnessing many of the harmful dialogues that are involved in rape culture (blaming the victim for what she was wearing, the community shunning her morals and lifestyle, etc). She also finds herself questioning where Ben was during the events at the party, considering he went back to the party after dropping her off the night she was drunk.

I felt so much for Stacey, and her raw emotion during the brief moments we see her in the narrative had my heart aching for her. There was one scene in the narrative where Stacey’s mother slams the door in Kate’s face and we hear Stacey making the claim against Kate “She’s one of them! She’s one of them!” even as Kate tries to reach out to her – they used to be friends in the seventh grade before growing apart. Hartzler treats all the characters in this narrative with an incredible amount of conviction and dimension, and it manages still to be a fast and fluid read with a careful eye to the issues within – not heavyhanded nor lecturing, but observant and informative.

The description of the events on the tape that Stacey’s in is graphic, brutal, but honest, done in a way that I felt really showed the horror of it (in which Kate and her brother Will have palpable reactions.) The way also that the narrative gradually reveals the gravity of Ben’s willingness to sweep events by the wayside and ultimately put on display his dishonesty was well done. I predicted his role early on, but wasn’t sure how the narrative would handle it. I’m glad that Kate was able to see the horrible thoughts and actions of the people around her and how they were dehumanizing and trying to erase the crime against Stacey.

In the end, this was a narrative that will stick in my mind for a long time. I don’t give many full 5-star reviews, but this deserves every single one in my eyes. A heartfelt and gripping read.

Overall score: 5/5 stars.

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