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That's Not What Happened

Review

That's Not What Happened

It’s been three years since a tragedy struck a small county in Indiana. Three years ago, a student open fired at Virgil County High School leaving seven students and two faculty members dead. Those that survived did not make it out unscathed, whether the wounds be physical or mental. Lee Bauer was only a freshman when her best friend Sarah was shot. Since then, Sarah has become a martyr. The story goes that Sarah died while bravely and proudly announcing her devotion to God whilst wearing a cross necklace to the monster who would then seconds later kill her. But that never happened. Sarah and Lee were huddled together in the same stall holding hands when the bullets came. That’s the truth. Lee doesn’t know where that other story came from, but she was too afraid to say it didn’t happen.

Now Sarah’s parents are planning on writing a biography talking about how devoted and brave their daughter was in her final moments of life. Lee can’t let this go on any longer. She can’t stand the thought of the narration on the shooting being altered again. When Lee goes to the detective that oversaw the case, he has two things to say: It doesn’t change anything, and don’t go around telling people this. Sarah’s story is important to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. But Lee can’t agree with that advice, not when her best friend is being made into something she wasn’t. Soon Lee finds a whole community angry at her, trying to run her out of town…just like the last girl that tried to tell the truth.

In THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED, Lee and her friends, the other surviving witnesses of the massacre, tell their truths about what happened that day, unaltered, no way to be taken out of context for the sake of a juicy headline, truth.

"Hands down one of the best books I’ve read in recent years....Keplinger went all in. She explores all the sides and aspects that come along with these topics and doesn’t water them down."

I’ve been a fan of Keplinger for years and was eagerly awaiting her next book, but when THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED was announced…I had a deep inhale. Immediately from the synopsis, I knew this was going to be a book that was going to split people. The topics are very real, very timely, very touchy subjects. Not only that, but it sounded like Sarah’s story was incredibly similar to real life stories that I’d heard over the years. This was either going to be a disaster, or one of the most important books of the year. Like I said before, I imagine this book is going to be polarizing and everyone is going to be left with their own thoughts and opinions on it. Mine? Hands down one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

Sometimes with books that feature timely topics, you can feel the author trying to play it safe and the book suffers for it. Keplinger went all in. She explores all the sides and aspects that come along with these topics and doesn’t water them down. She brings up the arguments we’ve all seen in the news and in our real-life communities. The book never pretends to offer a solution for the big problem at hand: I think that’s where THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED really won me over. The book isn’t so much about the shooting and the politics behind that so much as it’s about the coverage it got. The book is all about rumors, half-truths and the truth and how a community, how the nation, regards them. It’s something that I haven’t heard about any of the other recent YA books that follow school shootings to be about; it’s a highly fascinating and compelling take and quite frankly one of the only reasons why I was interested in reading it.

I’ve avoided all the YA books about mass shootings; I feel like in a work of a fiction, it’s something to easily, unknowingly romanticize --- and that’s the last thing that needs to be done. I kept a careful eye out for that when reading THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED, and I can say that I didn’t see that happen in the slightest. In fact, Keplinger on more than one occasion called out the romanticizing of these massacres and took steps to ensure she didn’t encourage that. Never once in the book is the shooters name mentioned. It is blacked out. We never get a backstory on the guy who did it, the reasons why he may have slaughtered nine innocent people are never entertained. This was an excellent move and I wish we saw this in real life.

THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED is about the way outsiders report and view a tragedy, but it’s also about being an insider and trying to heal. In the past we’ve seen events like this take place: it gets its few days of major media coverage, and then within a few weeks it’s almost forgotten until the next tragedy. Outsiders get to “move on” in a sense. Survivors don’t. In the past, we haven’t heard much about that, the After part. THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED is about that After part. It’s written by an outsider who hasn’t been in a mass shooting, this review is being written by another outsider. I feel it would be ignorant to not mention that. But, with that being said, I think Keplinger gives a good glimpse at what it may be like to be someone who is a survivor.

The characters we meet in THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED are perfect. They are perfect because they are flawed. In a book with a topic like this one covers; an author might be compelled to make their cast of characters the most perfect people with one villain; Keplinger does not do that. Every single character has dimension, they make mistakes --- some small and some big--- and that makes them truly great. Keplinger’s characters aren’t always warriors; sometimes they’re anxious children because after all, they are only children. Like real people, the cast is hard to predict, making THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED a book you can’t put down because you want to see how everything will play out. Not only does Keplinger write wonderfully flawed characters, but she nails the teenage voice perfectly. Often in books there’ll be a couple moments where our teen protagonists seem to age 30 years with their dialogue and wisdom. That never happens with the characters here which makes the reading experience all the better, but also more unsettling given the subject matter. Readers will have a hard time figuring out how they feel about certain characters and, in my mind, that’s the sign of a truly phenomenal book.

THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED is an extremely timely book. In fact, as I was writing this review, there was another mass shooting. It’s not a pleasant topic of conversation. No one wants to talk about people being slaughtered. But it needs to be done because it just keeps happening. There’s a lot of politics, a lot of beliefs behind what should be done about the big problem at hand. Instead of delving into those topics, Keplinger targets the way those things are presented ---marketed, really--- to an audience. She asks the readers what it is that they value: the truth, or a story that offers a moment of peace during a time of fear and unrest. She never tries to villainize a group of people, she only gives you the chance to take a step back and see through the eyes of someone else. THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED is a powerful, moving, sensitively and sensibly written novel. This is a book that is more than worth taking a chance on. Even if the subject matter and the opinions presented by the characters aren’t something you end up vibing with, Keplinger’s skilled writing is something undeniable.

Reviewed by Olivia W., Teen Board Member on September 12, 2018

That's Not What Happened
by Kody Keplinger