Justina Ireland’s 2018 YA novel Dread Nation was one of New York Public Library’s Winter 2018 Picks for Young Adults. When I read the brief description about alternative history and zombies and then saw the totally badass cover over on Amazon, I had to read it. Although it clocks in at over 400 pages, I zipped through it in no time, and all I can say is that there had better be a sequel soon! Set in the 1870s, Ireland shows her readers an America that is horrifying and familiar. She has also created some cool and courageous characters, most notably the teen Attendant/zombie-slayer Jane McKeene, the mixed race daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner who finds herself training to become part of the brigade of body guards for rich white women in the face of the zombie uprising that began during the Civil War. In this alternative America, the war essentially ended so that both sides could fight off the zombies, better known as “shamblers.” But the tensions remain between those who want to restore America to the way it used to be (Survivalists) and those who recognize people of color as equal citizens (Egalitarians). Jane’s goal is to get training so that she can return home to Rose Hill and protect her family, but zombies and Survivalists have other plans.
The novel opens with Jane at Baltimore’s Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls, a prestigious private academy that trains the girls who will become Attendants to white society women. Jane is a bit of a troublemaker. She frequently flouts school rules by writing letters home, reading books and newspapers smuggled in by her ex-boyfriend Jackson, and occasionally sneaking off in the night to patrol the remote roads around the school and protect travelers unlucky enough to encounter shamblers in the woods. While Baltimore’s Mayor Carr has declared Baltimore shambler-free, the fact is, the woods and roads around Baltimore are not safe. Jane’s nemesis Katherine is a classmate who is at the top of the class and is a great beauty — fair enough to pass for white if she chose. Kate and Jane are like oil and water, but circumstances will find them thrown together and needing to rely on each other. After helping to thwart a shambler attack at a lecture in Baltimore attended by all the city’s movers and shakers, Jane and Kate draw the especial attention of Carr. Meanwhile, white farming families who live outside the city walls are disappearing. This includes the Spencer family, whose daughter Lily is actually Jackson’s little sister. Though she is African American, Lily passes as white and is protected by the Spencers, thus ensuring that she will not be forced to do combat training. In this America, it is the law that African American children attend combat schools to learn to defend whites. The common thought, especially among Survivalists, is that African Americans have a special immunity to zombie bites because they are more animal than man. Children are often poorly trained and armed, and of course are not immune.
Lily’s disappearance without a trace makes Jackson frantic, and he enlists Jane to help him find out what has happened to the Spencers and other families. What they discover puts them in terrible danger, and eventually, Jackson, Jane and Kate find themselves shipped to a Survivalist settlement on the Kansas frontier. Here, the rabid, fanatical pastor and his son the sheriff present as much if not more of a danger than the zombies beyond the walls. Jane, driven by her anger and desire for revenge, as well has her longing for home and to see her mother again, must use her wits and strength as a fighter help her friends, herself and the others inside the compound as a zombie horde descends and the powers that be ignore both sense and reason in response to it. Jane will have to figure out who she can trust and how far she is willing to go in her fight against the Survivalists.
The story is exciting and thrilling. It’s a real page-turner with plenty of fighting, intrigue and danger. At the end, our heroes are still working toward the truth, so there must be at least a second volume in the works. The characters and their relationships with one another are a real highlight of the storytelling. Jane and Kate’s burgeoning friendship in the face of danger is a delight. Jane is sarcastic and snarky with a fiery temper. Kate is the pretty, snooty girl who loves fashion but can shoot like an ace. They seem like an odd couple but will become a great team. Ireland also sets up some interesting potential romantic interactions among characters, but these are a sidelight and might be developed more in the next book. The development of the girls’ backstories is especially well done, with bits and pieces of the truth dropped through the novel. It isn’t until the end that we know the real truth of Jane’s family story.
What hits the reader between the eyes, beyond character development, is the horrifying world in which these characters must live. Although this is an alternative history, much of what happens in the story is pretty historically accurate. In the Author’s Note at the end of this book, Ireland writes about the initial inspiration for Dread Nation — learning about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This was a school established in 1860 to “educate” Native American children. What that meant in fact was that Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and culture, forbidden to use their native language or ways, abused, and forced to learn ways to serve white America. In Dread Nation, the Negro and Native Re-education Act does a similar thing. It is the legislation that forces Negro and Native children to be removed from their homes and sent to state-sponsored combat schools, and then to be sent to the front lines in fighting zombies, ready or not. Negroes and Native Americans, in US history and in this novel, are treated as less than human. Survivalists and other racists believe that African Americans are more animal than human. They also think that the zombie uprising is the result of the “unnatural” way of things, i.e, the civil war and abolition of slavery. They are convinced that they must return to the ways of the past, that God is on their side, and that building walls is key to their safety, survival and success. The real horror of Dread Nation is not so much the zombies as the crazy hateful white people. Jane’s anger and desire for retribution is completely understandable, in my opinion.
Dread Nation is an excellent, exciting story about racism, oppression, and friendship. It features totally badass female characters and, yes, zombies, but this story is bigger than a zombie horror show. It’s really a horror story about people who fear losing privilege and admitting equality. They are the monsters within the gates. I can’t wait to read more about how Jane and her friends make out!