Books·First Look

Jessica Johns's novel Bad Cree is a story about grief, guilt and healing — read an excerpt now

Take a peek at the Vancouver-based author's debut novel! Bad Cree is about a young woman whose nightmares force her to deal with a sibling's untimely death. The novel will be published on Jan. 10, 2023.

Bad Cree will be published on Jan. 10, 2023

A woman withe dark hair and glasses smirks at the camera.
Jessica Johns is the author of novel Bad Cree. (HarperCollins Canada)

Jessica Johns is a Vancouver-based writer, visual artist and member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 Territory in northern Alberta.

Johns won the 2020 Writers' Trust Journey Prize for the short story Bad Cree, which is about an Indigenous character's attempt to reconnect with their land and culture.

Red book cover with the silhouette of birds on a wire.

That horror-infused story became Johns's debut novel Bad Cree, which centres around a young woman named Mackenzie who is haunted by terrifying nightmares and wracked with guilt about her sister Sabrina's untimely death.

The lines between her dreams and reality start to blur when she begins seeing a murder of crows following her around the city — and starts getting threatening text messages from someone claiming to be her dead sister. Looking to escape, Mackenzie heads back to her hometown in rural Alberta where she finds her family still entrenched in their grief.

With her dreams intensifying and getting more dangerous, Mackenzie must confront a violent family legacy and reconcile with the land and her community.

"I wrote Bad Cree to validate my understanding of nehiyawak love, dreaming, and kinship. I also think this world can be a hard place to be sometimes, so I wanted to build a world of my own that readers could get lost in, if they needed a place to go for a while," Johns told CBC Books via an emailed statement.

Bad Cree will be published on Jan. 10, 2023.

Read an excerpt below. This excerpt contains strong language. 

Before I look down, I know it's there. The crow's head I was clutching in my dream is now in bed with me. I woke up with the weight of it in my hands, held against my chest under the covers. I can still feel its beak and feathers on my palms. The smell of pine and the tang of blood sting my nose. 

My pillow feels for a second like the cold, frozen ground under my cheek. I yank off my blanket, heavy like I'm pulling it back from the past, and look down to my hands, now empty. A feeling of static pulses inside them like when a dead limb fills with blood again. They are clean and dry and trembling.

Shit. Not again.

Before I look down, I know it's there. The crow's head I was clutching in my dream is now in bed with me.

I step gingerly out of bed, as though the world in front of me might break, and turn on the light, wait for my eyes to adjust. It illuminates my blanket on the floor, the grey sheet kicked into a clump. Every breath I take is laboured, and when I blink, my dream flashes onto the back of my eyelids. Running through the woods. The snow glistening in the clearing. The crows covering Sabrina's body.

Heart thumping in my chest, I kneel next to the bed, how I imagine I might if I ever were to pray. 

"Come on," I plead into the covers. "Where are you?"

I feel across the bedsheet for anything: blood, feathers, twig-small bones. My fingers shake and search by touch in between pillows, into every crease and wrinkle of the fitted sheet. I turn on the flashlight on my phone and use it to look into shadows, but I find nothing. My shirt, when I bring it up to my nose, smells like the outside in winter, like pine trees and sharp cold.

"You son of a bitch, come on."

I kick the blanket to the side and put my cheek to the floor, scanning underneath the bed and bedside table. Dust and crumbs sit forgotten in dry corners. An old plate, mould forming along the ridges, lies next to holey socks. I close my eyes. My awake mind is trying to fog the dream over, shake it away, but I hold onto it. I know it was there, in my hand. As real as the floor still against my cheek, I was holding a crow's head when I woke up. I can still smell the blood in the bedroom air and feel where its beak pressed into my palm, right above my heart line. Throbbing and hot.

I can still smell the blood in the bedroom air and feel where its beak pressed into my palm, right above my heart line. Throbbing and hot.

I think of the dream while I shower. I lather shampoo into my hair and rinse, watch the brown strands circle the drain. This is the third dream in three weeks. The third time I've brought something back with me.

In the first two dreams, I brought back branches. I broke them off the trees as I was running through the woods in a panic. The first time it happened, the branch disappeared as soon as I woke up and looked down at it. 

The second time, the moon was big and full outside, and I caught a glimpse of the flimsy stick gripped between my palms. That time, I held on tight, but it still disappeared. I had hoped that if I held on hard enough, I would understand how I could have a pine bough in my hands when the last pine tree I'd seen was a thousand kilometres away in Alberta. 

Excerpted from Bad Cree by Jessica Johns. Copyright ©2023 Jessica Johns. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now