Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: What We Saw by Aaron HartzlerWhat We Saw by Aaron Hartzler
Published by HarperTeen on September 22, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, Romance, Thriller
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
AmazonThe Book Depository

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?

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 couple weeks back, there was a Top Ten Tuesday about books you would have on your curriculum. I didn’t do it, but What We Saw had me thinking about that skipped TTT, because it very much would have been on my curriculum. The class would probably be called something like How Not to Be a Douchecanoe 101. What We Saw is one of those books that has not just an amazing message but good characters to make you feel that message, rather than feel like you’re being whacked over the head with it.

That said, What We Saw very heavily conveys its messages about the rape culture in the US. Personally, I don’t mind that when the message still so badly needs to be conveyed, especially to the target audience who can change the social mores of the future, and that I so much agree with. If you don’t like your books preachy or full of message, What We Saw might not be your favorite. If you don’t like the message, fuck off.

What We Saw actually opens cutely, innocuously. Kate Weston went to a party, got really drunk, and was escorted home by her childhood friend Ben, who she’s recently developed a crush on. Her memories of the party are super vague, but she thinks there’s a chance he likes her too. For several chapters, Ben and Kate are totes adorbs, flirting shyly and then being bravely straightforward. It made me realize how rarely there are scenes in YA novels where, rather than a smooth ask out or something, they just have a slightly awkward talk about changing feelings, putting it all out there.

I admit some confusion at first about this lighter-hearted focus on Kate’s romance, when the topic of What We Saw according to the back of the book was rape of another girl at the party. Actually, Kate’s romance does end up being a key factor for her and for the reader. View Spoiler »

Kate’s hometown of Coral Sands, a middle of the nowhere town with a huge basketball obsession becomes the center of a media maelstrom when Stacey files rape charges against four popular guys. The reader doesn’t get to know too much about Stacey, mostly just the sort of facts that one might get from a news report about some little town beset by rape allegations: her mom’s occupations, how she looks and dresses, and the rumors about her.

Kate runs through a whole gamut of reactions to the rape charges. She’s skeptical at first, but not entirely willing to dismiss Stacey’s claims, like so much of the student body. Though a vehicle for the message, I think Kate’s evolution in her thoughts on this matter were realistic and convincing, a way of getting the reader to consider their own reactions while she does.

The message and story parallel heavily with C. Desir’s Fault Line, which I also really enjoyed (in so much as you can enjoy this sort of story). However, I do believe that I would generally recommend Hartzler’s novel before Desir’s. What We Saw is a bit clearer, and Fault Line dives even further into the vagaries. I appreciate that What We Saw points out even internalized sexism and rape culture, particularly through the song lyrics Kate occasionally halfway notices throughout the novel or her viewing of her high school’s production of Grease.

Dark contemporaries aren’t everyone’s jam, but What We Saw is very much worth a read if you can stomach it. A very important novel on a subject that America as a whole needs to be educated about.

Favorite Quote:

“All I know is that you can be a feminist and believe the Bible.”

“The Bible talks about feminism?”

“It talks about families,” Rachel clarifies. She sounds more and more like her mom now. “God created women to be good helpers for men. It’s just better for families that way.”

“Not for Elizabeth Barret Browning.”


“Her dad disinherited her for marrying the man she was in love with. They were broke for years because back then a father could just decide who his daughter married and take away her money if she did otherwise.”

Rachel shakes her head. “It was a different time then. It doesn’t really affect us now.”

I want to tell her that this issue affects everything. Even our friendship. I want to be able to tell my best friend about my first time having sex with a guy I love, but I can’t risk it because I don’t want her to get all snooty about me losing my virginity—as if somehow she and her mom and the youth pastor at her church should have a say about that. I want to tell her that i don’t think a book from the Bronze Age is a good-enough reason to relegate women to the role of “helpers” for all time.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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5 responses to “Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler”

  1. Hannah says:

    Totally agree with your review. Yes, the book does end up having to spell out its message, but with the sheer extent of rape culture in society, we pretty much need to hit people over the head to try get them to understand. I particularly ‘liked’ the fact that the author showcased the internalised misogyny of so many of the women, which seems to be prevalent in these types of cases.
    Hannah recently posted…Review: The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1) – N.K. JemisinMy Profile

  2. Lily B says:

    This seriously looks like a deep book, I think I need to read it.
    Lily B recently posted…Review: A Halloween Scare at My House: Prepare If You Dare by Eric James, Marina Le Ray (Illustrations)My Profile

  3. It’s so good to see that more and more people are reading this book everyday because since it’s its release, What We Saw has not been getting the hype it deserves. Understandable though, because there have been some pretty exciting hyped up releases this year.
    I didn’t expect What We Saw to be so powerful but man, it has easily become one of my favorite reads this year. It definitely raises so many questions about the inherent misogyny in our society and the disgusting culture of victim-blaming. Brilliantly reviewed, Christina. You should also give Rachele Alphine’s Canary and also Faking Normal a go. 🙂
    Nuzaifa @ Say it with books recently posted…Post Reading: What We Saw – Aaron HartzlerMy Profile

  4. I was one of those people who didn’t LOVE this book because the message was SO spelled out and lesson-y. I liked the message and agreed that it is an important book, but I just didn’t like the delivery as much. I enjoyed the writing! I read a review that said that they may have liked it better if the story was told by someone that was more involved in what happened instead of an outsider looking in. I think maybe that would have helped me to love it instead of like it. Great review! Definitely made me think.
    Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday- If You Like This BookMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      The overtness of the message didn’t bother me, because 1) I thought the characterization was good and 2) it didn’t detract from the story itself for me.

      I think the fact that the story was told by an outsider was a huge part of the point, but I also do get what you and that other reviewer mean. If you haven’t read All the Rage, you should. That’s one from the POV of the girl who was raped.

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