How much would you have to see to speak up?
The party at John Doone’s last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early… 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 questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey and what awaits them if they choose to speak up?
I received a review copy of What We Saw from HarperCollins Australia. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
What We Saw focuses on the aftermath of a party where a girl may have been sexually assaulted and raped while unconscious. The novel was inspired by true events that happened in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012, and I think it tackles issues that we should be talking about. However, on top of that, What We Saw is a coming of age story about using your voice to do what you think is right. The book was suspenseful, thought-provoking and beautifully written, with lots of great metaphors. Obviously, this book has triggers for sexual assault and rape, and there are some scenes that are quite graphic. It’s definitely a book that I think is worth reading, but proceed with caution.
This book is written from the perspective of Kate Weston, who was not involved in what happened at the party. She’s very much an outsider who wasn’t present and doesn’t know the facts, but she suspects that there’s more to the story than the public has been made aware. Throughout the book, Kate goes through an internal battle about whether to stay away and mind her own business, or do the right thing and find out the facts even though it might hurt the people around her.
I really enjoyed that What We Saw was written from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t involved in the situation. It allowed for an exploration of the serious issues, without being overwhelmingly dark and difficult to get through. While the topics of rape and victim blaming were at the forefront, what I appreciated most about the story was the coming-of-age aspect of the book. We really get to see how the other students and members of the public are affected by the situation. Everybody seems to be operating under the policy of not needing to know the facts and not wanting to be involved. But for Kate, hearing the story of the victim, when everybody else is backing the alleged perpetrators, is just as important. She just needs to figure out whether finding out the truth is worth hurting her friends and loved ones over.
Kate was a fantastic character because she wasn’t strong. She had doubts about standing up and using her voice but ultimately, when faced with a grave situation that would probably stay with her for the rest of her life, she decided to do what she thought was right and what she could live with. And I admire her so much for that. I also admired Stacey who was strong enough to press charges against the people who had assaulted her, even though she had no recollection of what happened. It was heartbreaking to see that nobody cared about her and how the situation affected her.
“Wait,” Lindsey says. “Just because she’s wearing skimpy clothes means that she’s lying about those guys forcing themselves on her?”
There’s a lot of slut shaming and victim blaming in this book. There’s the automatic assumption that Stacey deserved it because she was wearing revealing clothing and was so drunk, she was unconscious. I thought this was dealt with really well in the book by the author. We repeatedly see Kate question why Stacey deserved to have that happen to her when it could have easily been somebody else, or even herself, in the same situation. We also get to see different perspectives on this – those who blame Stacey because they truly believe she brought it upon herself, those who blame Stacey so that they can pretend it never happened and not have to deal with the consequences of what rape means, those who cover up to truth so they can continue to live happily and uncaringly, and those who distance themselves from the situation so that they aren’t affected by the consequences. I was a little bit devastated that even at the end of the book, nobody really cared about the truth and blamed Kate for caring and speaking up.
People were also sympathising with the accused, and commenting on how their lives are ruined because of stupid accusations. I thought this aspect was also handled very well. Although I’m sure that the author didn’t intend to teach life lessons through this book, there’s a great message in the book about actions having consequences and that there are always alternatives to any decision or action.
Finally, I wanted to talk about Kate’s boyfriend and family. I really enjoyed the romance in this book. It made the tone of the book a little bit lighter than it would have been without the romance. I liked Ben’s character a lot but I just wish some things had turned out differently. I also loved the role that Kate’s family played in the book. What We Saw definitely does not suffer from Absent Parent Syndrome. Kate’s family is extremely supportive and I loved that they made the best choices when it came to her wellbeing.
Overall, I think this book is a must-read for teens. The issue of sexual assault is one that is difficult to talk about and I think What We Saw is a great conversation starter.
All thoughts in this post reflect my personal opinion. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. We can have a civilised discussion in the comments.