Book Review: Jackal by Erin E. Adams

In Erin E. Adam's Jackal, a young black girl goes missing in the woods outside her white rust belt town. But she's not the first—and she may not be the last. Here's Janet Webb's review!

Not every story that opens with a sense of “Once upon a time” has a happy ending. Many Grimm fairy tales are indeed grim and make readers uncomfortable, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Jackal is set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a booming steel town in the 1800s. Seventy miles to the east of Pittsburgh, Johnstown’s best days are in the rearview mirror. The novel feels like a horror story. But—no spoilers—Jackal also reads like a fictionalized and enhanced autobiography. Meet Liz Rocher, who embodies the title of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. The phrase reverberates in her head as she sweats out whether she will get off the train taking her back to Johnstown for her best friend’s wedding. Liz is black, and Mel, her best friend from childhood, is white—like most folks in Johnstown, a fact that is pivotal to Jackal

Before Liz grew up in Johnstown, Alice, a black girl, was murdered. Her body was found in the woods, her heart ripped out of her body. Alice’s mother Tanisha felt uncomfortable in Johnstown: “Upon arriving, Tanisha didn’t trust the place. If pressed, she couldn’t say why. The best answer she could give was: It felt too safe.” Too safe seems odd but Adams fleshes it out. Tanisha, a city girl, was used to danger that “always lurked right around the corner.” But Johnstown has no corners—danger isn’t hiding, rather “it preferred to fester.” 

Tanisha was a loving and cautious mother to Alice. When Alice became a teen, she begged for permission to join her friends in the woods. The shadowy woods worried Tanisha, who felt  shadows hid danger. And danger for Black girls was different. 

After Alice’s murder, Tanisha’s life stopped. Evans’ epigraph on Alice’s murder is haunting, “With each passing second, the pain of the present robbed the past of its luster.”

Liz Rocher does not want to go home. She never does: 

I take another gulp of my train wine. The cheap varietal burns my palate. Varietal. Palate. Who do you think you are? There it is. Judgment. One of the many things I ran from when I left.

Liz has a therapist who tries to reprogram Liz’s worries and self-criticism over being a black woman who never felt welcomed in Appalachia. Through therapy and, inevitably, avoidance, Liz deals with her memories. Not to mention a successful career.

On her journey back to Johnstown for the wedding, Liz contemplates just staying on the train, but then Mel calls and Liz decides not only can’t she skip the wedding but also can’t skip seeing Mel’s daughter Caroline—Liz’s goddaughter, whom she adores.

When Liz disembarks from the train, she is solicited by a disheveled older woman, “nondescript in her Blackness.” Liz isn’t having it. The unhappy woman reminds Liz of how easily folks label her—as a domestic helper or shop clerk—someone unlike her professional self. “Here, the make of my bag, the quality of my clothes, the timbre of my voice, the style of my hair, none of that matters. My skin speaks first, and it is too close to this woman’s for comfort.”

Mel and Garrett are marrying in a barn surrounded by woods. It’s Liz’s least favorite place in Johnstown: She can’t stop thinking about her friend Keisha. The last time she saw her alive was at a bonfire party in the woods. Then Keisha disappeared.

Unbelievably, so does Caroline, in the party after her parents’ nuptials. Liz freaks out: It’s Keisha redux.

Keisha Woodson, the only other Black girl in Liz’s high school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart removed. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence.

Liz shelves all her discomfort to focus on finding Caroline alive. Nothing else matters. Liz learns Alice wasn’t the first black girl to go missing in the woods. There have been many others. Liz doesn’t run away, convinced Caroline is still alive and that she’s the only one who can save her. Liz is determined to break the horrific pattern that only impacts young black girls, only to discover a supernatural element: It’s watching. It’s taking. It’s your turn.

Someone—a monster—has waited all these years for Liz to return. Taking Caroline is a way to entice Liz into his trap. The supernatural metaphor lays bare the rotten heart of Johnstown’s casual racism.

Jackal is a disturbing, ultimately hopeful story about confronting your past to save the people you love. Using courage and tenacity, Liz Rocher rewrites the script of what it means to be a black girl in Johnstown.

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