Published by HarperCollins Australia on 23rd November 2015
Boffins, Dymocks, Booktopia
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.
A question that often pops up in the blogosphere – and beyond – is what we should be teaching teenagers in school when it comes to literature. Should we be using the Classics, like they did when I was at school, or other adult novels that are heavily dissected to a point where reading becomes a chore? Where every metaphor or theme is picked apart to a point that critical thinking isn’t actually critical anymore (another discussion topic not for today)?
Or should teenagers in high school being reading material that’s geared toward the demographic – the teen? Should we be giving teens books that not just give them an understanding of how the English language works, but also teaches them lessons beyond the classroom, that challenges them to think not just in a critical sense, but socially – and culturally, based on events that are shaping their world, their future?
After reading What We Saw by Aaron Hartlzer, my firm opinion on that is yes. Texts like this – like Courtney Summer’s All the Rage or Amanda Maciel’s Tease are the reading material I would want my own children to be reading at school and looking at in depth. Why? Because they provide not just a keen understanding and awareness of the trials teenagers face, but they provide an outlook of what the majority of teens face on a day to day basis in a way that is so raw and real it leaves you knocked for six.
Simply put, they have a shock factor. And in a day and age where so many lines are blurred and so many voices are causing the younger generations to be confused, especially by outdated values that no longer apply to us, we need reading material like this.
I’ll admit, I was wary going into this book. Highly intrigued, yes, but only because I had followed the case the book is based on, even though it didn’t quite reach the same levels of intensity here in Australia that it did in the US. I was wary over the fact that a man had written a book where the subject of sexual assault is the key theme had me a little worried. I’ve heard of other YA novels where similar topics were covered in a farcical manner, and wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Yet at the same time I was high intrigued, so a chance I gave it.
I’m so glad I did.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how this book left me feeling, except for the range of emotions that spilled out over the 24 hours I read it. Angry, frustrated, upset, disgusted. But between all those raging emotions, I was pleased. Pleased that there is finally a book out there that doesn’t sugar coat things. Most of the time when I review books, I find it hard to know exactly what to say that isn’t just a rehashed version of what everyone else has already said. Sometimes you feel like what you say is just a circle of blah blah blahs that you’ve already heard before to the point where in your mind you’re thinking, okay, we get it, enough already!
But the thing is, it’ll never be enough. Because even today, even now when we are more progressive as a society, we are still failing. Which is why it’s important to talk about books like this.
Kate is popular, smart and grounded. She’s got her head screwed on, and what I loved about her characterisation is how she remained true to herself the entire novel. She stuck to her guns while learning a lot – while questioning and growing as a person due to the events of the book. But each decision she made, you didn’t feel like screaming at her, or feel like the author was exploiting her for a plot line. The decisions she makes, the choices she chooses, every little thing is well thought out and has a reason behind it. She doesn’t let herself be swayed by others who are only thinking of themselves.
The main question hanging over the novel is the question of would you speak up if you saw something you knew wasn’t right? Hartzler puts to the reader that what we might see isn’t always the full story – the closer you look, the more you see. While there is a lot of focus on the way we have grown as a society to put the blame directly on women – for our actions, for the way we dress, for what we say and don’t say – this was the crux of the novel. And I think one of the most important themes out there.
A lot of the time, we are the Kates. The ones on the sidelines, who hang on this delicate precipice. It’s hard to relate to a story where the main character is the victim if you haven’t been in that position, which can screw with our way of thinking. What We Saw puts you into a mindset which is hard to escape from, where you are constantly questioning. It puts you directly into your mindset. Think about when you see girls out at parties, or at clubs, or in photos, in conversations etc. Working around young people, I see it so much of the time. Reading from Kate’s point of view, it really questioned the what would you do? scenario. There’s even a scene later on in the novel when one of the boys who was at party mentions that he wouldn’t be able to help himself simply because the victim was drunk (and according to his pea size brain, therefore “offering” herself up to be raped). The teacher goes fairly mental (one of the only adults who seemed to get it), and starts talking to the students about what they should be doing if they come across a drunk girl (or really, person). Everyone gave the right answers, but the whole scene was written in such a way that made you as a reader think, would they really? It’s so easy to say “Oh if I came across a drunk girl I wouldn’t take liberties, I’d make sure she’s safe.” But to put that in action is another, and I think that was also an important message that was sent across.
This book is just as poignant for adults to read as teens. Because the actions of most of the adults are what causes people – easily influenced teenagers especially – to be a certain way. I got so mad at Kate’s parents. At one point, her dad says that what’s more of a crime is that a hacker group has “stolen” a video of the rape that was circulated and quickly deleted. When your own father says that stealing a video is more of a crime than rape, it makes you sit up.
Idolisation is another important theme throughout the novel too, and is the one that parallels to Stuebenville – and so many other cases that have never garnered media attention – the most. These seemingly perfect young men who have talent in sports who are put on a pedal stool and worshipped to a point where they can do no wrong. Or at least if they do, a blind eye is turned. Nothing is left out in What We Saw, including how Kate’s younger brother, Will, is a perfect example of falling victim to the superstar complex. Caught rating girls in his class, Will doesn’t quite understand why Kate is so furious, since “everyone else” has done it. It’s not until the end of the novel, when Kate forces him to watch the video that he is able to grasp what is so wrong with what happened.
One of the things that really knocked me for six as well was how Hartzler explored Kate’s friendships in the novel. It really kind of makes you sit up and think when people who you think you know so well….suddenly you don’t so more. While it’s understandable to see where some of Kate’s friends got their perspective from (such as Rachel), it was hard to accept that Kate was friends with those who were quick to blame the victim, and by the end of the novel, Kate realised that too. One of the main questions that kept coming up was “If that was me, would you have stopped it?” and is where a lot of the slut shaming formed. When some of Kate’s friends answer with that would never happen to you because you are essentially a good person, you know that they aren’t. Being a good person doesn’t mean it will never happen to you. Wearing a lot of makeup and a short skirt doesn’t mean that you have it coming for you as well.
A lot about What We Saw will piss you off. It won’t be the writing, or the way the author handled the topic. It was all so beautifully done that it really made you sit up. That anger and frustration you feel isn’t because of how the book is posed, but because you are questioning how as a society we have reached a point where even children think that it’s okay to blame the victim. And that’s why What We Saw is a must read book.
I don’t know if I could call it a favourite, because favourite seems like the wrong sort of word to use when you think about the context. But it is probably one of the most powerful, thought provoking books I’ve ever read.