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Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

Friday, February 12, 2016

What We Saw
Aaron Hartzler

Genre: YA Contemporary
Hardback: 336 Pages
Publication: September 22, 2015
by Harper Teen

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 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, 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?


What We Saw is a powerful story and one that needs telling. It portrays student life in all its gritty details from the slander and gossip to the language to their addiction to social media and their phones. And how cruel and prejudiced people of any age can be. I'm going to be honest. After the first several chapters, I ended up skimming through many school scenes. The students' lack of compassion for Stacey and their constant victim blaming left a bad taste in my mouth. Hartzler does not slack on the gory details of teen life.

I appreciate Kate's determination to get to the bottom of everything and not to blindly accept what everyone else takes for fact. She's a strong-willed character if a bit blinded by love. I didn't like Ben's character as much. Whereas Kate is drawn to find the truth, Ben wants to leave everything as it is. He takes active steps to maintain the status quo—such as deleting photos he posted online of the drinks at the party to protect his friend—and he doesn't share Kate's desire to help Stacey out. The only things he cares about are Kate and getting out. It's like he's running away from his mom and his origins. I do not care for Ben's attitude towards his mom and how he treats her. The end only increased my distaste for Ben.

One aspect that I appreciate about What We Saw is how it examines why people victim blame. For example, Kate comes to the realization that, if the girls don't blame Stacey, then they have to accept that what happened to Stacey could happen to themselves as well, for they too were at the party. As Kate realizes, she was as wasted as Stacey was. They could have easily traded roles had Ben not driven her home that night. What I wish we saw more of is an exploration of why some people chose to remain silent, why others laughed when they saw the rape taking place in real time, and why they acted the way they did after it all went down. Perhaps some of them are shallow through and through, but if we can learn why people do what they do perhaps we can take action to prevent future Staceys. Ben himself tells Kate that he doesn't want to get involved because it might influence his chances of getting a scholarship and thus a ticket out of town.

Again, I mostly skimmed this novel, so I can't say for certain, but I didn't see much character growth or development. Ben was pretty flat, and no one character showed up enough for me to see much in the way of character dynamics. One example that really sticks to mind is Will, Kate's brother. We see him about to rank a girl on her Facebook photo while laughing with a friend on video chat. Kate yells at him and tells him to delete any ranks he's posted online or she'll tell dad, then she storms out of the room. We never really see anything about this incident afterwards, so I don't know if Will is apologetic and has learned a lesson, if he deleted his rankings because of Kate's threat, or if he never does anything. I wish there was more followup on his growth. For that matter, there is so much focus on getting at the truth that we don't see much of Kate's growth either than some realizations she makes along the way (such as the ones I mentioned earlier).

What I really like about this novel is the difficult moral choices that Kate has to make. For example: what to do when someone you really care about and who isn't a clean-cut villain is involved in something you know is wrong? Do you speak up and name his or her part in the crime (in this case, Stacey's rape), or do you keep quiet to protect the one you care about? There can be no clean ending when presented with these questions. While the end wrapped up rather quickly and we don't see any real growth from the person involved, I like the maturity that Kate shows when faced with this difficult decision, and I love how her family supports her decision and is there for her.

I recommend this novel to readers looking for a novel that portrays the gritty side of high school life, rape cases, and victim blaming.

A copy was provided by Harper Collins for review

Rating: 3 stars

  • N/A
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  • Explicit Language
  • Trash talking, slander
  • Rape (explicit)
  • Alcohol
  • Sex, making out, kissing

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