Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
April 3, 2018, from Balzer + Bray
Young adult speculative historical fiction
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Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
So Dread Nation was everything I expected it to be, and I enjoyed it so much. The premise of a historical zombie apocalypse in history is already one that piques my attention, but Justina Ireland weaves in such an in-depth commentary on slavery and colonialism while making Dread Nation generally really fun to read.
Jane was such a well-developed and fierce main character with such a distinctive voice. I loved reading from her POV. She was so headstrong and impulsive, which is shown as both good and bad. Yes, Jane has a tendency of showing off and jumping into things feet first, but it makes her a great fighter and fast thinker, even if she isn’t great at the etiquette thing. Actually, Jane’s snark and failure at putting etiquette before, you know, survival, was actually so great, especially compared to Katherine, who likes etiquette and is exactly as snarky as Jane is. I was praying for enemies-to-lovers with Katherine and Jane, because their character dynamic was wonderful; they had so much chemistry together.
The plot was fairly good too, and I loved the alternate history aspect of the novel. I know next to nothing about the American Civil War, so a lot of the history sailed over my head, but those are just small details and didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. I did struggle a bit with the pacing, especially in the beginning and middle of the book. It felt like it dragged a lot between action scenes even though I was interested in the world, but the ending got the ball rolling again.
What really made this book stand out to me was the commentary on colonialism and slavery in the history of the United States, though. Dread Nation is on the reading list for a YA lit class at my university, and boy I wish I could write more of an essay on it than I’m able to here because this book critiques institutional racism so well. So much of the novel is about survival, not only against the shamblers, but also surviving as BIPOC. Dread Nation doesn’t shy away from how badly people of colour are treated by white hegemony. Even though it centres on Black people after the Civil War, Dread Nation also brings to light the injustices against Indigenous and Chinese people that were rampant at this time.
Ireland bases the system of combat schools for Indigenous and Black people on the real-life residential school system combined with American slavery, and the result is a horrifying world where Black and Indigenous people are made to fight and often die to protect white people. Even though slavery has, technically, ended in this timeline, Dread Nation shows that there’s a lot that passes for slavery in everything but name. Despite all the horrors of rising dead, the most horrific thing in this novel are the cruel white men who see Black people as subhuman.
Dread Nation is definitely a must-read book for its social commentary and badass main character, especially if you’re into historical fiction. If you’re also into zombie stories, then that’s a bonus.
“See, the problem in this world ain’t sinners, or even the dead. It is men who will step on anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of power.”