Shannon Vare Christine on What Happened Was by Katharine Haake

Told through a series of eyewitness accounts, Katharine Haake’s What Happened Was is a chilling eco-fable that serves as a cautionary tale woven with philosophical underpinnings. Haake draws readers into a tense world that feels as if every person is living on the edge of the next tragedy: “…weren’t the centers of our eggs a little less golden these days; wasn’t the milk a tad turned?” Conflicts intensify, as the narrator-protagonist introduces the reader to their somber world that has experienced a seemingly preventable disaster. They are learning to exist despite this new set of challenges. However, there is an ever-present tone of dread and doom, which keeps the reader questioning whether the characters in this story will indeed survive after all. Will this story be enough to convince a modern audience to enforce preventative measures before it’s too late to save the world? Or is this complacency and arrogance simply the partial sum of being human? 

Each account is told through the perspective of an unnamed character who at times shares a personal, first-person observation of what is happening, and at others utilizes the collective pronoun “we.” This creates a simultaneous proximal and distant manner of storytelling, which enables readers to ascribe their own meaning to each account. While each chapter is a parable that serves to underscore an element of human nature, the reader can choose how it spotlights a metaphor, revelation, or theme relevant to their unique moment in life. These themes also apply to the current political, scientific, and social climate, warning of the potential consequences and aftermath of certain choices. The characters in these accounts need to deal with the drudge of life, and their need for novelty, in a disposable society. There are allusions to issues surrounding climate change, mental health, shame, and innocence. And while these anonymous people are navigating their own lives, there is a universality created in these retold vignettes. There are plenty of specific images and details that allow the reader to envision the characters’ actions, while also being vague enough to create a universality to the story. In Account C, there was a boy with a nagging cough who sometimes hoped “to strike up a conversation with the person in the bubble next to his, but as soon as we saw what bubble he was in, we started shuffling ours about to make a kind of cordon sanitaire between him and us.” This at once conjures images of the COVID pandemic, and flu seasons even now, while also warning that there could be a future pandemic panic lurking close by. 

Destruction happens ever so slowly that perhaps this is the reason why humans are so slow to initiate societal change. “As long as you didn’t look, you didn’t have to see.” Haake interrogates the myriad ways by which humans avoid and ignore, as they wait for someone else to fix their problems. The characters in this story reveal the dangers of this line of thinking and their lives give a visual interpretation of existence during the time after a catastrophe. They fall into the same trappings that humans often find themselves in: “You think you can control these things. You think you are the master of your fate.” However, heartaches, disappointments, deaths, and disappearances cannot be controlled, no matter how hard these characters try to maintain command. “For a harvest was a harvest even so, and maybe these fish—were the last of their kind, and maybe we were too.” This repeated Biblical-style quote serves to punctuate the undeniable truth that these characters are doomed due to the events set in motion by them and those before them. There is a universal force at hand, and they likewise realize that even when they cease to exist, some of nature will go on, or even resurface, sooner than humans. However, the characters are laying down their accounts and records as a means of capturing control of their narratives for people to read at a later date. “We want it to be known that we did everything we could. We were vigilant and thorough. We tried home remedies and discipline, a regular routine, counseling, prayer.” As they had tried unsuccessfully to save their child, they will also be fruitless in their attempts to save themselves. 

There are certainly more questions posed than answers delivered in this fable. “Why should we? How sad is that? What were we to do with that? What other remainders or whatnots might one day surprise us? Why us? These do not appear sequentially in the book, but they all carry the same thread of existentialism. Question appear on many pages, and in fact, this book even concludes with a question. The characters pose these inquiries to themselves, but they are also vaster queries addressed to the reader who likewise needs to internalize them. There is a melancholic nostalgia well placed surrounding these questions, which prompts deep reflection. After all, “…when it is gone, the mysteries of the people and the world it contains will be gone too.” 

Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems are featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism were published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, Compulsive Reader, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived writing and more can be found at, her periodic newsletter, Poetic Pause, and on Instagram @smvarewrites.