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book review

Bad Cree is the debut novel from author Jessica Johns.Madison Kerr

  • Title: Bad Cree
  • Author: Jessica Johns
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • Pages: 272

The one thing that frequently “outs” a Pretendian – those who claim Indigeneity but lack the scars and pride that come from surviving colonization on Turtle Island – is the lack of connection to an existing Indigenous community or family. For many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, family is everything. It’s more ubiquitous and far more important than a status card. Or bannock. This is one of the few universalities that exist among the varied Indigenous people of Canada.

In Jessica Johns’s debut novel, Bad Cree, family is evident – in fact, it is the focus. At its core, the book is about the strength and resilience of family, as well as the secrets that are shared and perhaps more importantly, those that aren’t. It’s also a tale of mystery, of foreboding, and of the power of women.

Adapted from the author’s short story that won the 2020 Writers’ Trust of Canada Journey Prize, Bad Cree is the story of a young Cree woman named Mackenzie who is dealing with the death of both her kokum (grandmother) and her sister, Sabrina. Unable to deal with the twin tragedy, she runs away. But distance doesn’t help. The horror of her sister’s passing follows her across the country. In this community, there’s more to death than just … death.

Dreams of her deceased sister, followed by mysterious texts from that same sibling and the increasing presence of numerous crows ominously following her, force Mackenzie to return home. (That’s the thing about the past: It never stays there.) And it’s here where the mystery tightens.

Once in her community, she is instantly enveloped by her extended family. Almost immediately you feel the comfort of home, and the occasional claustrophobia that can result from so many aunts and cousins constantly whirling around in your business. It’s a feeling most Indigenous people know well and welcome. To tell more would take away from the eerie pleasure of following this Cree woman’s journey.

Bad Cree, by Jessica JohnsHandout

Yes, there is horror and plenty of death to be dealt with, but in the hands of Johns it is less graphic, more introspective. You practically become Cree by wrapping yourself within the pages of this book. (Of course, as an Anishinaabe, I am making an assumption here.) Still, like any good thriller, Bad Cree might just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and leave you afraid to fall asleep. Simply put: It can be scary. Some may consider it Stephen King meets Eden Robinson (neither of whom, I feel necessary to point out, is Cree).

A lot of the literature to come out of the Indigenous community in the past few decades has frequently been described as “trauma porn”: writing that focused on the horrors and difficulties Native people have experienced during their tenure as official “Canadians.” (The numerous books recounting the unfortunate experiences of the residential school era may be the best example of this). Works detailing the poverty, racism, sexism and horrifying living conditions brought on by hundreds of years of colonialism have been popular topics for exploration.

Today, the trauma porn era of writing has evolved. In Indigenous literary communities, there are writers whose genre fiction – from sci-fi and mysteries to fantasy and thrillers – still explore trauma and pain, but from a renewed and culturally focused perspective. Bad Cree is an excellent example of that evolution. There’s way more than tragedy here: There’s laughter, the power of matriarchy and an interesting way of showing how the old issues our ancestors dealt with can still have an impact on our lives today. It’s empowerment porn.

With that said, there are a few genuine chills as you turn these pages, along with mythology, an understanding of family dynamics and an awareness of semiurban Cree life. And best of all, some good, old-fashioned storytelling thrown in.

Enjoy the journey. Pack warm clothing, and some family.