What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler | Book Review

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.

What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler | Book ReviewWhat We Saw by Aaron Hartzler
Also by this author: Rapture Practice
Published by HarperCollins on September 22nd 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Social Themes, Dating & Relationships, Peer Pressure, Social Issues, Dating & Sex
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Buy on Amazon

Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel—inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case—will resonate with readers who've ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.
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 responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw?
National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti calls What We Saw "a smart, sensitive, and gripping story about the courage it takes to do what's right."

What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler is one hell of a young adult fiction debut. I mean, yes, I knew to expect excellence after reading and really loving Rapture Practice, Hartzler’s memoir, but What We Saw just blew me away. I had plans to eventually read this book but nothing too terribly solid. It was more of those I will read it when I read it sort of things. THEN! My co-blogger Allison texted me asking if I had read What We Saw and she proceeded to tell me about how she could not stop thinking about it and how I would really love it. Straight up, I believe in recommendations from friends who know my exact reading taste and so, after finishing up The Pretty App, I dove right straight into What We Saw and was essentially gripped from beginning to end.

What We Saw is a book that seems like it was directly influenced by the Steubenville rape trial. It opens with main character Kate Weston coming home from a party with the assistance of her childhood best friend, Ben. Kate is quite intoxicated, but she gets home just fine and Ben even drives her truck to her house so that she does not get in trouble. Not everyone gets home from the party fine though.

You see, a picture emerges from the party of this girl named Stacey who is being carried shirtless while passed out over the shoulder of one of the basketball players. It then emerges that Stacey is pressing criminal charges against four boys on the basketball team for rape. Ben is on the basketball team, but as far as Kate knows he got her home, went back to the party to get his vehicle, then left. Yet, there’s something on the timeline that begins to bother her. What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler is essentially about how Kate comes to grips with the truth and how rampant rape culture is in a small town.

Main character Kate Weston could probably be you or me as teenagers — in that she certainly does not know everything, but she wants to do the right thing. The thing that I loved about Kate was that she did not immediately know what to think or what was right, only that the way people were talking about Stacey and what happened bothered her, but she could not quite put her finger on why. I love that over time she figures out why and then begins to take some actionable steps. Also, I felt like Kate’s character came across as just very real and genuine. Nothing about her rings false.

So, chances are you know that a large part of What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler is about rape culture. Perhaps, like me, maybe you question how well can a man write about rape culture (maybe that comes across as sexist, however, put this way the majority of sexual violence victims are women, so I feel women have a unique understanding of this). Well, Hartzler does an admirable job. In this book, we see a town that worships the jocks. We see so many people who say boys will be boys and look for all kinds of reasons to blame Stacey. We see the boys who commit the crime described as people with bright futures who made mistakes. It is infuriating, but all too real. Hartzler’s book is at moments painful to read because I know so many people think the way that Kate’s classmates do – where she was drunk and wearing a short skirt means she had it coming. I find myself really impressed with the job Hartzler did.

In addition to being about a topic that is important – as we live in a world where statistics show 1 in 5 US women will experience sexual victimization in her lifetime - What We Saw is so well written. There’s this recurring motif about how once, Kate’s midwest town was an ocean. The state she lives in is landlocked, yet this theme of the ocean will come up over and over again, and it adds this literary touch where I read it as yeah, her town was an ocean and maybe it seemed like it would always be an ocean, but now it is the midwest and maybe with our culture, rape culture, blaming women seems so ingrained, but it does not have to always be that way. However, that sort of change is not overnight and immediate, much like how topography of a land changes, it is not overnight, but it can happen, eventually.

Other reviews of What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler:

Reading With Jenna – “a must-read for teens.

Candace’s Book Blog – “Just. READ. THIS. BOOK.

Effortlessly Reading – “a powerful book with multiple powerful messages

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.
About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. This was a really good review, April. I especially enjoyed your observation about the ocean theme, and what it might mean for the overall story arc and message. This sounds like a book I need to read, so I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  2. Wonderful review! I was just blown away by how well done it was. I have continued to recommend it to everyone as it’s just such an important book. Thanks for linking to my review!

  3. I loved the Geology theme that ran throughout the book. I thought that really added to the writing. I was impressed by this debut and it’s a REALLY hard topic to tackle. But I didn’t love Kate as the narrator. And I hated her stupid friends. Some of the convos between them (esp the ones at that diner or wherever) seemed super forced and lesson-ey. I also wished that Ben was slightly more developed. He was one of those “to good to be true” guys. Great review… I’m glad you loved this. I’m really excited to read more by this author bc I saw SO MUCH POTENTIAL!!!