Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler


Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Release date: December, 2015? (originally September 2015 in the US)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336
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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?


45 stars

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. 


21 thoughts on “Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

  1. Lydia Tewkesbury says:

    I haven’t read it, but your review reminds me a lot of my experience of reading Asking For It. Even though it makes for very difficult reading, I’m glad that books like this are emerging in the YA market. Before we only had Speak, and as great as Laurie Halse Anderson is, it wasn’t really enough. I hope that these books get people thinking about these issues. Whenever I end up in a conversation about sexual assault, someone almost always surprises me by saying something that constitutes victim blaming. If I call them on it, they often don’t even realise that’s what they’ve done. The attitude is so ingrained that unless someone takes on the job of pointing out every single instance of it, nobody even notices. People are even taught to do it to themselves. It makes me so sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenna @ Reading with Jenna says:

      It is really sad. I see insensitive comments online all the time, from people who I know well in real life, and it always shocks me. I know we have preconceived notions about people who dress in certain ways but I find it super unfair and uncalled for when I see or hear nasty comments. I haven’t read Asking For It (I wanted to read Only Ever Yours first but still haven’t gotten around to doing it yet) but I think the message it has is one that people need to read.


    • Jenna @ Reading with Jenna says:

      It’s definitely something that needs to be explored further. There are more and more books about sexual assault and rape for young adults now but this is only the start of the conversation. I think we need different stories about different characters who go through different circumstances so that we can see from multiple perspectives and the conversation doesn’t go stagnant. That’s why I appreciated that this book wasn’t about the victim but about an outsider dealing with the situation.


      • Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

        Oh I completely agree. I have noticed a lot more books tackling issues like these have been released recently. It’s a trend I can really get behind. I’m definitely going to read this book at some point. I’d be interested to see how to writing differs, seeing things through the eyes of someone witnessing the events from the outside, and I completely agree with you about not letting the topic go stagnant. Rape and sexual assult is something the affects so many people in so many different ways. It would be refreshing to see some of those ways addressed.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jenna @ Reading with Jenna says:

      Thanks Jeann 🙂 I thought this was a great book in terms of increasing awareness. It’s probably more likely that people will find themselves in the position of an outsider than as a victim so I think it’s important to see from the perspective of somebody who’s just trying to figure out where they stand and how they should behave.


  2. Nicolette Elzie says:

    Jenna, as always, you’re review is so poignant. I look forward to reading this. I think the topics you mentioned are very important, too many people (here in the US) want to pretend that these problems don’t exist and that we don’t have a problem with victim shaming. Thanks for the rec!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

    (Lol at the italicized comment at the end.) 😛

    I’m not a fan of more heavy-hearted contemporaries, but this one sounds real well-written and expresses the situation with a down-to-earth tone that reflects reality. It’s interesting to see what was happening through a spectator’s eyes. There are so many people probably in the position of Kate out there that will empathize with her. It’s refreshing to see the authentic tone of a character who’s too scared to do things that she thinks is right – god knows we all feel that way sometimes.
    Great review as always Jenna!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenna @ Reading with Jenna says:

      Thanks Aila ❤ Yeah, I really loved that it was written from the perspective of an outsider who was actually just as drunk as the victim and could have easily been a victim herself. It really makes you think about the situation from every perspective before victim blaming. And I'm so sad that this book was based on a true story because it was pretty horrific what happened and how people behaved afterwards.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Marianne @ Boricuan Bookworms says:

    I love books that deal with topics like these because I feel like they’re not talked about enough. This book reminds me a bit of “The Truth About Alice”, because everyone narrated the story except the girl who was actually going through the situation.

    I like the sound of Kate as a character! I definitely have to try this out!

    Liked by 1 person

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