“Sometimes the bad isn’t a hole, a lack, a place where something is missing. Sometimes feeling bad is a true warning, something that could save you.” – Bad Cree
Bad Cree, the debut novel from Cree woman Jessica Johns, is a work of decolonisation. Reading this paranormal thriller is like watching your reflection as you walk towards a glass door: the story is fluid and lifelike but there’s an unsettling essence of the untouchable, a reminder that there’s more to life than the tangible.
Mackenzie is a prairie Cree living in high-rise Vancouver. As the first anniversary of her sister’s suspicious death approaches, a series of progressively terrifying dreams invades her waking reality. The dreams take her back to a night that changed their lives, when her sister walked into the woods alone.
According to Cree lore, no one should ever walk in the woods alone. Mackenzie is tormented by guilt for not following her sister. In her dreams she follows the sounds of screams but it’s too late – a murder of crows is ripping at her sister’s flesh and tearing out her heart. Mackenzie wakes shivering with cold, holding a crow’s feather in her hand.
When the dreams become life-threatening, Mackenzie is compelled to return home. The functional dysfunction of family life seen through a Cree lens brings humour, matriarchal magnificence and vivid images of prairie life that instil a familial connection between Cree and country.
The wisdom of Cree oral traditions is revealed over meals, card games, video games and walks in the community. The Cree dictum “You can’t be greedy if you have your family to think of” is the core message that Mackenzie needs to understand. In a single generation, the boys in her small town went from dancing powwows on weekends to working overtime at fracking jobs. Now the oil boom is over and the deserted streets are lined with posters of missing First Nations women and girls, and of two spirit people.
What becomes of your soul when the land that is your heart is raped and left hollow? Expanding on traditional Cree mythology that goes some way to explain the disturbing number of missing First Nations people and the mentality of the perpetrators, Bad Cree gives us the bifocal lens of a First Nations survivor. As Mackenzie reconciles her place as Cree in a world shaped by individualism, she learns that love lives alongside darkness, and that living with the bad doesn’t make a person bad.
Scribe, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Jessica Johns, Bad Cree".
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