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 live in The United Kingdom, and every day of my existence I thank the government for their law against guns. Having grown up watching numerous school shootings unfold around the world, going to school in England has always felt safe. These incidents happen and it feels so isolated from where I am. Reading about it brings a certain discomfort however, and with That’s Not What Happened, I struggled to find myself completely comfortable reading the plot. It felt too real; and knowing it was inspired by genuine events, I could not shake the ‘ick’ feeling I got.
Keplinger’s That’s Not What Happened deals with the emotional scars a handful of teens bare after being involved in a school shooting. Based on the Columbine shooting, the book bears a disturbing likeliness to the story of Cassie Bernall. I appreciated how the author handled the atrocity in delicate matter while making the events of the plot realistic and understandable. My problem only lies in that it felt too realistic; as I knew exactly where the origins of the story came from.
Leeanne or ‘Lee’ as known by her friends, was the protagonist of the story. Though she wasn’t the worst protagonist I have ever come across, I didn’t find her as likeable as I would have hoped. Her motivations to unearth the truth felt more selfish than an attempt to settle rumours. It wasn’t purely a way for her to clear Kellie’s name after she was branded a liar and driven out of the small town. It was more of a way for Lee to ease her guilt about allowing that to happen when she could have spoken up.
Throughout the novel, she barely took other people’s emotions into consideration and didn’t realise that reliving the traumatic experience wouldn’t be a walk in the park for the other survivors. Still, I did admire her drive and determination. When the town turned against her, she continued to fight for what she thought was right. This was pretty damn admirable, considering everything she had been through.
My favourite character throughout the story was Denny. He was witty, realistic and I really inspired how he didn’t want people to pity him. He believed he was deserving of scholarship not because he was one of the two African American teens in his school; not because he was blind; not because he had survived the school shooting and had to re-learn to use his cane – but because of his sheer ambition and academic merit. He wanted to be seen not for the stories that circulated the media, but for what he could be capable of.
A powerful move on Keplinger’s behalf was the redaction of the shooter’s name. She never humanises him: never gives him the satisfaction of giving people the chance to talk about him. All we know is that he was a student at the school. The media often takes these people and makes a big show of them – while in That’s Not What Happened, it emphasises that the focus and attention should never be on the shooter; but the victims. It’s a very strong statement that I stand behind completely.
The book also brushes along the theme of asexuality – something I have not seen discussed in many other books. Lee provides us with a base understanding of what it feels like to admit to people that is LGBT, and is a character which may help other teens to embrace their sexuality proudly. Miles’ reaction to this information, as a potential love interest, was very good. I liked how he took this information and didn’t use it to change his opinions, but instead helped to form an understanding of what boundaries would be there. The book is bursting with diversity through sexuality and disability, which is all handled incredibly well.
Though the book wasn’t an extremely long read, and it didn’t take me a very long time to finish, I did have to power through. Again, I feel this lies with my discomfort on the topic and knowing the inspiration behind the story. However, the book did shine a light on the Columbine shooting and encouraged me to research the topic. I was a baby when it had happened and so I had only heard brief references here and there.
At a time where school violence is on a rise, I feel this book is a very important piece to be had in young adult fiction. There wasn’t anything overly wrong with the book, but I just found it hard to give it anything higher than a three.
Hallie @ Book Loaner says “It’s an exceptional book for teens.”
Anabelle @ The Fictional Realm says “I cant say I enjoyed reading this book because nobody likes reading about a school shooting, but I’m glad I did read it and I would definitely recommend giving it a go.”
Vicky @ Vicky Who Reads says “I think this was pretty well written and was a lot less shocking than Marieke Nijkamp’s This Is Where It Ends“
Kody Keplinger was born and raised in small town western Kentucky, where she began her writing career after penning the New York Times and USA Today bestseller, The DUFF, at age seventeen. The DUFF, now a major motion picture, was chosen as an YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers and a Romantic Times Top Pick.
Kody has since written other books for both young adult and middle grade readers. When she isn’t writing, Kody is posting about fashion and body positivity on her Instagram, chatting about her favorite TV shows on Twitter, or making videos for her YouTube account. Kody is also the co-founder of Disability in KidLit and a teacher at the Gotham Writers Workshops in NYC.