The story of Rachel Carson after Columbine meets the school shooter dialogue of 2018 in That’s Not What Really Happened. While the violence of the event is off the screen, the real focus of this novel is unpacking what it feels like to survive a school shooting and to understand your own humanity and properly convey it to others.
Three years before the start of the book, Virgil County High School was rocked by a school shooting. A young man, who is not named in the entire book (which I think was a great choice), opened fire and killed nine individuals, seven students and two teachers, and wounded several others. But three years after there, there are six survivors, people who were on the frontline and saw their friends and colleagues die, or were shot themselves and survived. But they’re struggling. Especially Lee, who was in the bathroom holding her best friend’s hand when she was shot and killed. But it’s not as simple as that. Three years later, rumors continue to swirl claiming that Lee’s best friend Sarah died proclaiming her faith, clutching a cross necklace. But Lee knows that wasn’t what really happened, and now that she is about to graduate and leave the high school behind, she wants the truth to be told. So she embarks on a mission to get letters from each of the other five survivors telling the truth about themselves and the shooting. But along the way Lee will learn that not every voice is heard equally, and the truth is harder to tell than she may have thought.
Overall, I really liked the themes of this book. I think the message was strong and poignant and very timely. Every victim is a human too, with flaws, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to them. It also doesn’t mean we should martyr them though. However, I don’t know that the storytelling vehicle this novel chose was the best. It didn’t feel forward-moving at times. It was more of a character study, which is interesting, but I wasn’t compelled by what might happen. I know what was going to happen, and the big “reveals” didn’t feel revelatory at all. I appreciated the book and think it has a great message, but the plot just wasn’t driving hard enough for me.