A line from Jessica Johns’ haunting, atmospheric and beautiful debut novel, Bad Cree, has been tumbling around in my head since I set the book down. “That’s the thing about the [prairie]. . . . It’ll tell you exactly what it’s doing and when, you just have to listen.” Johns’ protagonist, a young Cree woman named Mackenzie, tries to hear things she’s been ignoring: grief, her family, the lands she grew up on. But there’s something else lurking just outside her perception, something more dire. Strap in for a dread-filled novel that examines the impact of grief on a small community.
Mackenzie hasn’t been sleeping well. To be more specific, she hasn’t been dreaming well. Every night, her subconscious shows her terrifying things, painful memories and, always, a murder of crows. Soon she notices crows outside her apartment window, following her to work and watching from power lines. Something is wrong, and she fears it has to do with the years-ago death of her sister. Mackenzie’s auntie pleads with her to come home, to be among her people, the Indigenous Cree of western Canada. There, with her mother, cousins and aunties, Mackenzie searches for what haunts her mind. Hopefully she can find it before it finds her.
Bad Cree began as a short story, and it’s still tightly written, brisk and efficient as a novel. Johns does, however, slow down when it comes to themes she clearly cares about, such as female relationships. A bar scene midway through the narrative does a particularly lovely job at enriching the portrayal of the community of women who surround Mackenzie. Their camaraderie shows just how important these relationships can be to people feeling lost or alone.
This web of powerful, positive connections stands out all the more in the face of Bad Cree’s truly frightening moments. The dream sequences are both spectacle and puzzle, a mix of memory and fiction, but it’s clear that something beyond just bad dreams is happening to Mackenzie. The unanswered question of what exactly that is provokes a consistent feeling of dread, and the climax is tense, horrific and exciting.
Bad Cree examines how grief can warp someone, how it can terrorize a person by slowly turning reality into nightmare. But there is also a beautiful hope at the center of Johns’ vision: Grief can be tempered by embracing your community. Alone, Mackenzie is just one person, but by returning home, she becomes a thread in a human fabric, woven together to make something stronger.