Initial reaction: 4.5 stars overall. I loved the multiple layers of this story and the voices of the teens involved in it with a mix of backgrounds. I definitely felt for them and the multicast audiobook narration was great.
So once again, I pick up a book from Kody Keplinger that manages to gut me (in a good way). “That’s Not What Happened” occurs in the aftermath of a tragic school shooting that leaves multiple students, years after the fact, still struggling to come to terms with what happened and finding ways to move forward in the aftermath. At the center of this story is Lee, an asexual teen girl who feels compelled to speak the truth of what happened during that fateful day because of an upcoming book that is being released by the family of her best friend, Sarah. Lee knows the stories that have been put out there by the media. She also recognizes Sarah’s family’s own belief of what occurred, but Lee is determined to set the record straight with the truth. Even after trying to tell the truth to Sarah’s family with no success, she decides collecting letters from some of the surviving students showcasing their respective “truths” will allow them to reclaim their stories respectively from the portrait of the media and backlash/disbelief some outlets have marked against them. This story is penned so that Lee is the central focal character, but allows letters from the perspectives of the other characters to reveal what happened that fateful day and allow their own insecurities, viewpoints, and progressions to come to light. I thought it was a wonderful way of addressing this situation on multiple levels, from a narrative sense as well as character development focus.
Lee realizes in the progression of this – pretty much the hard way – that not only can she not convince others of the truth put against the “story” that’s sold in a broad perspective, but that she also cannot force others to tell their respective stories when they aren’t ready or willing to do so. This is shown in multiple points throughout the story (though I won’t dig too deeply into it because of spoilers), but the way the narrative came together in the end punctuated a greater overarching theme that worked very well for “That’s Not What Happened.” Giving people the space to share their “truths” by their own will is important, and having the ability to listen to not just the stories themselves but also respecting the space/time in which their told is important as well. I think this is not only important in the space of events of tragedy, but also in discussing issues of identity, culture, and every distinction you could collectively consider. Keplinger did a fine job with bringing these students voices together, and it’s a narrative that I would recommend not only for the strengths of its perspectives and diversity, but also as something that its respective audience – and beyond – can use in applications true to life and their respective relationships. I’m glad I had a chance to read it and would definitely pick it up again, though if I had one critique to note is that I wish some parts of the narrative could’ve had more closure for the cast involved, especially for one of the students who had to move out of town to escape the toxic environment she was surrounded by in attempting to do the same thing that Lee did for much of the novel.
Overall score: 4.5/5 stars.