That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger
It’s been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah’s story–that she died proclaiming her faith.
But it’s not true.
I know because I was with her when she died. I didn’t say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah’s parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight . . . but I’m not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did–and didn’t–happen that day.
Except Sarah’s martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don’t take kindly to what I’m trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what’s right. I don’t know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up . . .
I struggled on whether to give That’s Not What Happened 4 or 5 stars. Despite the tragedy that centers around the lives of several teens who survived their school shooting, it felt like a great book, especially one geared towards young adults. I had to refer back to my own review policy because I just wasn’t sure of what to do with a book that didn’t excite me and resonate with me explicitly in a positive or personal way, but still left me thinking well after I put it down. Even now, I’m going back and forth changing the star rating.
If you’ve read the synopsis, you can imagine all of the trigger warnings that come with the book. Despite that, it really pulls you in, but not too deeply…and that seems to work. You get to know Lee, the situation, and some of the lives involved in the shooting bit by bit. While the story is fiction, it sharply drew to mind the story of Cassie Bernall/Valeen Schnurr from the Columbine shooting. The story that Cassie was asked if she believed in God, that she said yes, and that she was killed because of it. But it turns out, but it turns out that it was really another student in the library, Valeen Schnurr, who was questioned and answered. Despite the truth, Cassie’s mother released a book about her daughter’s martyrdom. It made me wonder if any young adults who read That’s Not What Happened would know about that. Even that I knew the story and the “controversy” of the truth, I still enjoyed Keplinger’s book.
That said, That’s Not What Happened brings a multitude of layers to think about. It shows that lies can be started accidentally. How the media only cares about a situation to get the best story, angle, or drama from it. How misconceptions can be fanned and worked into truths. How letting people believe in a lie can cause more harm even if it is hard to correct that lie and tell the truth. Time does not negate the truth, but at the same time, the truth can hurt others. If someone waits for any reason to speak up, that doesn’t mean that it is any less important or serious just because time has passed. It still affects them and they live and think about it all the time–just because others have moved on with a lie, doesn’t mean that the person who knows the truth has.
I also felt that it accurately portrayed the layers and complexity of trauma. We see how different people have reacted to the events that have happened. Some seem fine, like they have moved on, but on the inside, they are still hurting. They just don’t show it. Others have PTSD and sounds, touches, and sudden movements can trigger panic attacks and anxiety. We see victims ambushed, harassed, and intimidated by people they thought they knew and could trust. We see the brittle bonds that the survivors have tested and even broken. We see how anxiety can make you spiral in your thoughts, be aggressive and mean to the people that care about you the most, and how self harm isn’t always physical.
So as I sit here writing, I think I have made up my mind on how many stars to give this piece, knowing full well how arbitrary the system is. That’s Not What Happened is a solid piece of work that explores deep issues and tough events that probably are on the minds of teenagers more often now, without being preachy, patronizing, or wrapping them up with a big “and everyone lived happily ever after” bow. It shows how people can react to trauma–as well as the darker questions that no one wants to ask; why are the deeds of the dead forgotten just because they have died? Why do we allow only the good aspects of dead people to be talked about? To this, it does a good job of showing how individual “truths” can contradict and clash And that they are just that: individual truths. That people don’t like to hear things that alter what they believe. Ultimately, that truth and belief are more interchangeable to some than others.
Pick up That’s Not What Happened if you are looking for a solid story that leaves you thinking long after you have put it down.