Bad Cree by Jessica Johns
(HarperCollins $24.99)

Review by Odette Auger (BCBW 2024)

As there anything more intimate than our cheek against a pillow, or a hand against our cheek?
Jessica Johns (Sucker Creek First Nation) starts their debut novel Bad Cree with an extreme closeup of protagonist, Mackenzie, sensing surfaces against their cheek—as a location check, or even a reality check.
We meet Mackenzie in their bed, as they wake from disturbing dreams into an uncontrolled liminal state. We soon learn that Mackenzie is dealing with the untimely deaths of their older sister and their Kokum (Cree for grandmother). Johns’ descriptions crack open the story with all senses engaged.

Johns is also an award-winning poet and visual artist and their deft use of imagery is highlighted in Bad Cree. A recurring scent of pine wafts through the novel—first intermingled with blood, then with cold air. Johns uses sharp contrasts such as the sticky viscera of waking up with a crow’s head in their hand, to crisp wintriness. The immediacy of the first scenes is slowed with the line, “the last pine I saw was 1,000 miles away.”

Shifting from intimate to distant, Johns’ writing reflects the contrasting states of linear life and the threshold to other ways of being. As a genre, magical realism carries the undercurrent of fantasy and Johns’ novel refocuses this through a Cree lens. Their worldview of land, body and spirit being interconnected includes the shadows. “Being connected to everything, you are a part of it all, but you can’t choose what gets sent out into the world—or what can find you,” writes Johns. Through this worldview, dreams as communication and connection are not only possible, but essential.

Mackenzie lives in an increasingly liminal state, where dreams are doorways, and light and shadow coexist. In their waking life, Mackenzie is told time by crows who “move through the sky like a thundercloud, collecting kin.” Mackenzie watched the crows gather as a murder at their doorway, listening to how the crows’ calls “slice in from all directions, from the city and ocean. A swarm of warnings.”

When Mackenzie shifts their periphery an inch, we can smell the snow of their home in Treaty 8 territory. Johns, like their protagonist, is from northern Alberta where Johns says lakes are “watchful,” and lands and waters are sacrificed to the appetite of extractive industries.

Mackenzie has known “darkness dreams” before, when as a child, they experienced dreams of connection, forewarning and the protection of their sister. Dreams can be tools to fix moments we’re forced to remember. Mackenzie is fighting a dark being while unravelling feelings of guilt and incomplete grieving. A sense of loss seeps in, and in this way the stalking spirit in Bad Cree feels like an allegory for the weight of grief and the unresolved.

Recognizing spirit is part of this protagonist’s self-discovery, and things ramp up with Mackenzie’s archetypal return home to multifaceted relationships. Mackenzie’s circle of Indigenous women and queer characters bring warmth as a counterpoint to the atmosphere of silent keening. Indigenous readers know these aunties—we’ve sat at that table, felt the love of teasing jokes. With complicated and interesting characters, Johns introduces readers to the strength of our women without cliché or romance.

Part of the rising tension is Mackenzie’s need for repaired relations and reconnection with their family. Estrangement as a coping mechanism has done harm, and this needs to be healed so they can rally together “like two pieces of skin on either side of an open wound, considering how to reconnect again,” writes Johns.

This novel has been tagged as horror, and I’m not sure I agree. There are too many things in our families’ lived experiences that are horrific to use the label for anything that involves violence, mystery or darkness. Bad Cree holds all of those things, while still being poetic and loving. 9781443465489

Odette Auger, journalist and storyteller, is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother and lives as a guest in toq qaym ɩxw (Klahoose), ɬəʔamɛn qaymɩxw (Tla’amin) and ʔop qaymɩxw (Homalco)


According to Room magazine in 2022: "Jessica Johns is a nehiyaw aunty and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory of Northern Alberta. She is the managing editor of Room magazine and a co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series, a collaborative series between Room and Massy Books celebrating Indigenous women/2SQ storytellers. She has been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, Glass Buffalo, CV2, SAD Magazine, Red Rising Magazine, The Rusty Toque, Poetry is Dead, and Bad Nudes, among others. Her short story, “The Bull of the Cromdale” was nominated for a 2019 National Magazine Award in fiction." Her debut poetry chapbook is How Not to Spill (Rahila’s Ghost Press 2021).

[BCBW 2022] ILMBC2

Jessica Johns