Bad Witch Burning, Jessica Lewis (Delacorte 978-0-593-17738-9, 352pp, $17.99, hc) August 2021.
“I’m painting Will’s nails when she asks me to talk to her dead grandma.” Jessica Lewis opens her debut young adult fantasy Bad Witch Burning with a killer hook that, once you have finished the novel, you realize is packed with worldbuilding tidbits. Katrell is our protagonist, and she can communicate with the dead. When she’s not working a crappy job at a burger joint, sleeping through her sophomore year classes, or avoiding being at home, she’s with Will, her bestie, and her oversized teddy bear of a dog, Conrad. On the side she makes extra cash acting as a medium for the living who can’t let go of the dead. By writing a short letter to the dead, she can bring their spirit back for a short conversation. After Gerald, the latest in a long line of her mother’s terrible boyfriends, kills Conrad in a fit of rage, Katrell accidentally raises his body instead of just his spirit. With one desperate act, Katrell’s mysterious magical powers evolve into something new – and deadly.
Before, she earned chump change, but now Katrell’s pulling in thousands at a time as she resurrects dead loved ones for their grieving families. For the first time in her life, she’s not living hand to mouth and even has a decent nest egg for the future. But with each body she brings back, the more complicated things become. A strange sickness creeps over Katrell, and the Revenants, as Will takes to calling them, start terrorizing people in town. The living come after Katrell, too, as Gerald and her mother try to turn her into a cash cow and some dangerous criminals decide to make an example out of her. Soon she finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place: either she stops raising Revenants and gets sucked back into the cycle of poverty, or she keeps going and pays the ultimate price for her magic. At first, I was frustrated by Katrell’s intense obliviousness to her increasingly dire circumstances. She repeatedly refuses to acknowledge very obvious and basic facts, even when rejecting them means ignoring what is literally happening directly in front of her. Then, about halfway through, it clicked. It’s not that Katrell is oblivious or obtuse; she’s a child and she’s scared. She knows things are bad and getting worse, and she doesn’t know what to do about it.
The thing about being in survival mode is that it is all-consuming. For years, Katrell’s whole existence has revolved around doing whatever she can to keep the lights on, food in the fridge, and a roof over her and her mother’s heads. Something people who have never been poor don’t understand is how few options you have. There are only so many hours in the day, only so much money to be made, only so much of your heart and mind you can sacrifice. You cannot bootstrap your way out of poverty. The only way out is with the help of your community and the social safety net. Without one or both of those, it’s game over.
Out of a fear of her mother being punished for negligence and Katrell having to go to a group home, Katrell has never sought out the social safety net, not that it likely would’ve done much for her, anyway. Government services do not often treat poor Black folks with compassion and empathy in Katrell’s world or in ours. Nor has Katrell been willing to rely too heavily on her community. She frets over accepting help from Will and Will’s adoptive family because, thanks to her mother and her mother’s skeezy boyfriends, she tends to see relationships as transactional. She also can’t trust her school counselor, Mike, because he’s in a position of power and could just as easily harm her as help her. Survival mode means taking risks if there’s a chance of a great reward, but it also means resisting other risks where there’s a bigger chance of failure. And so Katrell would rather keep raising the dead, even as the consequences for doing so get bigger and badder, than ask Will or Mike for help.
The cycle of poverty that Katrell is living in would be bad enough on its own, but it’s compounded by a toxic mother and her abusive boyfriends. We never learn who Katrell’s biological father is, and it’s possible her powers descended from his side of the family tree. Not that it matters in the end. He isn’t around, so wondering what he’s like is a useless exercise. Knowing what we know about her mother, he was probably just as unpleasant as all her other partners.
For so long, it has been Katrell and her mother, but what does that mean when her mother begins to treat her like a tool or a toy rather than a child? Her mother is the only constant thing in her life besides Conrad, as with what happens with Conrad, it takes Katrell a while to realize how curdled that relationship truly is. Poverty begets poverty. Abuse begets abuse. Violence begets violence. How can we ask a child to bear the sole responsibility of breaking that cycle when her own mother can’t or won’t?
As a librarian and educator, I’m grateful to have more young-adult fiction dealing with poverty and child abuse. There aren’t enough books with that content being published, and we desperately need more. As a reader and fan of YA fantasy, I also appreciate that there is so much to dig into in Bad Witch Burning. I think I need to go back and read it a second or third time to catch it all. Jessica Lewis’s story may seem simple on the surface, but there is an ocean of depth between the lines. Whether you are a YA reader or someone who works with teens, this is a must-have book.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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