May 02, 2016

What We Saw

What We Saw Cover

What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler is a fictionalized portrayal of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case of 2012. We know what's to come in What We Saw. We have an idea of what will be seen, but we do not know the particulars. Hartzler builds tension by setting the scene and depicting his characters as ordinary popular school kids, not monsters.
Once we know the details of the rape of Stacey Stallard and the community-wide victim blaming that ensues, What We Saw develops into a shocking expose of brutality and indifference. Because of the graphic retelling of events, it is recommended for older teens. Hartzler's Iowa is a stand in for Ohio, but it could be any American town, from Pennsylvania to Texas, where sports are king.

Kate Weston is the ambivalent moral compass of the story. In general, I longed for more character development of all the characters, and though I understand his motives, I wish we could have gotten to know the survivor, Stacey Stallard and understand her experience firsthand. Too many of the tertiary characters blend together.

Kate agonizes over the cruel response to Stacey, her former friend. She is torn between loyalty to her boyfriend, teammates, and friends, and doing what is right. Ultimately, Kate's story is one of uneasy bravery. The way that Kate educates her younger brother (in the absence of their parents' moral instruction) about consent is powerful and avoids didacticism.

One of the best scenes of the book is when one of the accused says something victim blaming and the teacher, Mr. Johnston, commences a brainstorming session to come up with all the ways that boys can help, not harm a drunk girl. He concludes with, "Reggie, when you say that you 'can't help yourself' if a girl is wasted, that means something, too. You're saying that our natural state as men is 'rapist.'"

So many people in the story are complicit and afraid. They act out of personal interest. I like that Hartzler holds them responsible for failing to speak up and yet says they are not evil. He eschews easy judgment of the teens who mostly seem to lack moral guidance from the adults in their lives.

Hartzler has contributed to an important discussion on consent, social responsibility, public shaming in social media, and rape culture. What We Saw is a conversation starter; it shows an insider's view of the way news media investigates and disrupts a town in turmoil and the role of social media in shaping young people's attitudes and actions about girls.

For so long, the conversation about sexual assault has placed the onus on the victimized. It has taken a long time but finally there is a mainstream awareness of the importance of consent and preventing abuse by teaching boys not to abuse, rather than shaming girls for their dress and decisions to drink or travel alone.

There are many resources, essays, and articles where one can begin reading about YA books, rape culture, and consent. It's an important topic that cannot be ignored.

Posted by kathryn at May 2, 2016 02:10 PM
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