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. . .
Liz Rocher is coming home . . . reluctantly. As a Black woman, Liz doesn’t exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward and passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the bride’s daughter, Caroline, goes missing—and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.
As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: a summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other Black girl in school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart missing. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them Black. All of them girls.
It’s your turn.
With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.
Let me just start by saying that Jackal by Erin E. Adams is one of those books that left me kicking myself for waiting so long to pick up. I know I’m way behind here, but seeing as the book just released in paperback a few weeks ago, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to dive into this debut novel. Liz Rocher returns to her mostly white hometown of Jonestown, Pennsylvania, a place she has managed to avoid for quite some time. Liz’s best friend Mel is getting married, and it’s been too long since she’s seen her goddaughter and Mel’s daughter, Caroline. She can survive this, right? Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when Caroline goes missing near the woods during the wedding reception. This stirs up ugly memories of other Black girls going missing spanning much further than anyone cares to admit. Implementing tones of suspicion, small-town corruption, and horror, Adams produces a unique narrative in which the evils you suspect take on new meaning.
One of the best facets of this novel is the strength of empathy Adams elicits between the reader and Liz. Within the first few chapters, I felt incredibly frustrated along with Liz as she began to reunite with those of her past. Most of all, her relationship with her overbearing mother reads as remarkably genuine; Liz is a character who is rebuilding her life following a set of traumatic personal events. Returning home means reckoning with the person everyone remembers her as being compared to the individual she is now. This is most evident in her interactions with her mother whose comments and actions seek to “fix” Liz.
This frustration builds with nearly every new person she encounters or rather re-encounters. Many people regard Liz as a “good” Black girl as made evident by their comments and actions directed towards her. This differential treatment is offensive and off-putting as Liz is who she is. Other people’s need to try to fit her into their own boxes presents itself as one of the many horrors confronted in this book. Furthermore, her efforts to try and find Caroline are met with much resistance, even from Mel, since Liz’s theory connects Caroline to a string of disappearing Black girls in Jonestown, an unspeakable horror.
Speaking of horrors, the reveal of the “big bad” in this story was completely unexpected. Sure, hints are given along the way with chapters differing in points of view; however, the specific mythology and reasoning behind the evils at play in Jonestown were notably creative. I feel like this kind of ending can be pretty divisive among readers; however, I fall into the group that thoroughly enjoyed it. Jack’s character and relation to Liz are deeply complex and slightly ambiguous, leaving room for reader interpretation regarding the conclusion. Debatably the biggest monster of all in Jackal is the idea of home itself. The notion that home never quite equated to safety or comfort for Liz is upsetting in and of itself; layering this targeted violence contorts this homecoming into something monstrous.
Erin E. Adams’ debut novel feels distinctly personal; the author’s note at the end of the book signifies the time and dedication she poured into Liz’s story and subsequently her own. Jackal is a tale of reckoning. Liz must confront the horrors of her past with the terrors associated with her present reality in a way that brings the darkness that steals Black girls from Jonestown into the light. These external forces at work in Jonestown are reflective of the inner turmoil Liz experiences until a fateful conclusion is reached. Orchestrating such a tale has me hooked on Erin E. Adams.