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Review of Bad Cree by

Bad Cree

by Jessica Johns

Although I have never dealt with loss of this magnitude, I understand how it can reshape someone. Bad Cree is a story about the shape of loss, the way grief carves itself into your soul even when you think you haven’t let it. Jessica Johns uses traditional Cree stories to explore the power of family, of trusting yourself, and confronting those parts of yourself that you would prefer not to look at. It’s a “horror” story in a sense, a suspense story too, but it’s also a story of growth, renewal, and hope.

Mackenzie is Cree but living in Vancouver. She starts to have unsettling dreams, and when she wakes, sometimes she brings back a part of the dream into the waking world. So she heads back home to Treaty 8 territory, the site of her dreams and her family. As Mackenzie seeks to uncover the source of her dreams, she must confront unresolved grief, tension with her siblings and mother, and memories of her lost sister.

Bad Cree pulls you into the story immediately and never lets you go. Mackenzie is a solid protagonist whom you feel like you get to know from page one. The way she is handling her unexpected dream magic feels so grounded and believable, right down to how she’s trying to casually dismiss it while talking to her friend even though, at the same time, she’s really freaked out and having trouble sleeping. The text messages from her dead sister aren’t helping either. Johns carefully unspools Mackenzie in such a way that all of her actions make sense.

As Mackenzie returns home, Johns unspools the rest of the backstory while simultaneously pushing the main plot forward. I love how we get to know each of the women in Mackenzie’s family. How, as she reveals her dreaming to them, they each provide a new piece of the puzzle, like the aunt who also has such dreams or the cousin who trained herself not to dream for this reason. Mackenzie’s family feels like so many families you have been in or met. They come together for Mackenzie, yet there remains tension among them, particularly become Mackenzie and her surviving sister over Mackenzie’s “abandonment.” Family are the people you call not just when you need them but when you need them and have no other choice.

Still, they all come together for her, each in their own way. The cover copy bills Bad Cree as a novel of female & femme friendship and family, and it’s right. There’s something very uplifting, especially juxtaposed against the horror lurking beneath this story, about so many competent and caring women coming together to help out. They don’t always agree on the best course of action, but they all contribute to success in the face of this threat. Nothing demonstrates this better than the climax, where they prepare to confront the threat directly. I love how Mackenzie’s mother and the aunties prepare the younger women for their trip, see them off. There aren’t really many men in this story—mostly just Mackenzie’s father, on the periphery—and that must be on purpose.

As a white girl, it isn’t for me to comment on the “Indigeneity” of this story. But I can see the shape of the circular storytelling happening here, the way Johns keeps revolving around the pivot point of Sabrina’s death, of Mackenzie’s memory of her and Sabrina on the lake, moving us around and through these focal points. Parts of this novel are so understated, and it works incredibly well because it allows you to focus on what matters: Mackenzie, her memories, her dreams, her family.

Here’s the thing: Bad Cree isn’t just great Indigenous storytelling (though I am sure it is that); it’s great storytelling, full stop. Alternatively heartbreaking, sympathetic, pulse-pounding, and exciting, this is a novel that knows what it’s about and pulls off its goals without breaking a sweat (though you, reader, might). I nearly passed on it because I’m not much of a horror girlie, and I’m glad I pushed myself past that apprehension, because there is a beautiful story here.

Also, Kokum stopping by at the end just to say, “What’s up”? Priceless. Perfection.


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