Photo: Madison Kerr
Jessica Johns’ Debut Novel “Bad Cree” Imagines a Dream World Full of Nightmares
The Indigenous author’s horror mystery follows a Cree woman’s journey of self-discovery in a spellbinding tale about grief, family and strong women / BY Dene Moore / January 27th, 2023
“Mackenzie wakes from a nightmare in which crows cover the body of her sister, pecking at her where she lies in the snow. In her bed, she knows the dream is over, that it is a pillow under her cheek and not the cold, frozen ground, yet the crow’s head in her hand is very real, brought back from the dream world where she loses again and again the sister gone forever in the real world.”
So begins Bad Cree, the debut novel by author Jessica Johns, a spellbinding supernatural thriller underpinned by the story of a family dealing with grief and loss.
“I really wanted to write about the validity of dreaming for Cree people,” says Johns, a nehiyaw aunty with English-Irish ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in northern Alberta’s Treaty 8 territory. “Dreaming is a form of communication between our ancestors; it’s a form of knowledge production. There are a lot of stories that exist in dreaming and I wanted to really centre that concept.”
The novel started as a short story, which won the prestigious Writers’ Trust Journey Prize in 2020, which she worked on during her Master of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia.
“I really loved the concept and, though I love short stories, I just really imagined a more expansive world.”
As she got older, Johns learned more about the cultural significance of dreams within her community.
“Whenever I had a weird dream that I would tell my mom or aunties, they would always advise me to listen to it. They shared their own stories of dreams that have impacted their life, and it was just always validated,” she says. “It wasn’t like the westernized or colonial concept of dreams as our subconscious. There was more to it, and I just grew up thinking about dreams that way.”
She was excited to write about Cree culture, but wanted to do it in a sensitive way. Even among Cree people, there are significant differences in cultural practices and beliefs from one community to the next. While the novel is rooted in those traditional beliefs, Johns was careful not to include cultural knowledge that is sacred to the community.
“There are specific things that you need proper protocol and knowledge to be able to hear, and those things I wasn’t going to share. The concept of dreaming being significant for Cree people is widely known, and this is just a fictional interpretation of how far it could go.”
In the novel, as her nightmares escalate, Mackenzie leaves Vancouver to return to her home in High Prairie, Alta., which she left after her kokum (grandmother) died; she didn’t even go back for her sister’s funeral. Reunited with a large family that includes her mother, surviving sister, aunts and a cousin, Mackenzie must face her grief and guilt to survive her living nightmare.
She discovers most of the women in her family have been both blessed and cursed with preternatural dreams, including her Auntie Verna, who told about a heartbreaking vision:
“One time in eleventh grade, I dreamt of my best friend, Sam, in red. I saw Sam on a red road, surrounded by red trees, in the passenger set of a red car kicking up red dirt. Before I woke up, I knew in my gut that it was a warning. The next day, Sam told me she was skipping school for the rest of the week and hitchhiking to Grande Prairie to meet up with her boyfriend. As she spoke, I saw a redness start to glow from her skin, like a shroud sprouting from deep in her pores and seeping out. I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea, that she should wait for the weekend and I’d go with her. But she didn’t listen. She kissed me goodbye, and I just let her go. That was the last time I ever saw her.”
Johns deftly weaves Cree legend and culture with contemporary Indigenous issues in a story that is, at its heart, about the strength of family. Johns says she grew up with women who loved fiercely and supported one another, including her own aunties, and she brought that reality to the page.
She set out to write a book she would have wanted to read when she was growing up: a captivating, Cree-infused tale that readers can become lost in.
“I really wanted readers to like to be invested in this world, and I focused really heavily on the relationship dynamics of the characters,” she says. “I love reading for pleasure, and if people find pleasure [in the novel], I think that’s fantastic.”