Imagine if the Battle of Gettysburg had ended in a different kind of bloodshed.
Imagine if, instead of North versus South, the defining battle of the Civil War generation was the living versus the dead.The
Imagine if emancipated slaves were “freed,” only to be forced into an indentured servitude of killing zombies.
Imagine if the protagonist who told you this tale was a whip-smart young African-American woman who’s quick with a sword.
You’d be pretty psyched to read it, right? Right. And you’d have every reason to be, because it’s so good.
Dread Nation is a New York Times bestseller. It hit the YA scene this past spring and has been one of the most talked-about books of the year. It’s difficult to categorize Justina Ireland’s historical-fiction-action-horror-magical-realism-feminist-fantasy thrill ride, because it’s all of those things. Honestly, I don’t have a single criticism of this book, other than the fact that I now have to wait impatiently for its sequel.
Our protagonist is Jane McKeene, a biracial young woman who was born right after the Battle of Gettysburg, when the dead soldiers on the field suddenly rose up and attacked the living. Yes: Colonial zombies. Jane was born to a wealthy white woman, the wife of a plantation owner, but Jane is clearly the product of a decidedly non-white father. Controversial as this may be, Jane’s mother loves and fiercely protects her mixed race daughter, eventually conceding that the best place for her as a teenager is in a School of Combat for girls. Black girls who are properly trained to fight zombies — dubbed “shamblers” — can earn placement with a wealthy [white] family as a sort of governess who protects them from the undead.
“Maybe that’s your problem. You been waiting for a man.”
Jane McKeene, in response to someone saying that “no man” has been able to fight off the shamblers
I won’t spoil much more about the plot beyond this setup because you truly have to read for yourself to appreciate the wild ride on which Dread Nation takes you. Suffice to say, despite slavery being abolished, racism is a central theme of the story and soaks every aspect of our characters’ lives. Speaking of characters, Jane is one of my favorite leads I’ve read in a long time. She’s well-developed, multi-dimensional, and likable as hell thanks to her badassery and sharp tongue. The supporting cast (on the “good guys” team, anyway) is also fantastic. Red Jack, Katherine, and even some of the other smaller characters from Jane’s combat school were clearly put together with careful thought, rather than merely serving as accents to Jane. There’s even a slight hint at bisexuality towards the end of the book, which I’d be curious to see Ireland expand upon in the upcoming sequel(s). LGBTQ characters — especially those of color — need representation in YA lit. The premise of zombies and historical fiction could hook audiences who otherwise don’t seek out LGBTQ titles into appreciating characters who identify as queer.
“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.”
Like other zombie stories before it (The Walking Dead, for example), Dread Nation drives home the fact that, in the event of an undead apocalypse, it’s other humans we should fear the most. The racists are the true villains in this story, not the bloodthirsty shamblers. Jane has two weapons at her disposal: her scythe for the shamblers and her mouth for the white establishment. Indeed, some of the most heart-pounding scenes are when Jane stands up to the white folks hellbent on keeping her compliant. You’ll cheer for her and cry for her, and you’ll quietly reflect on the parallels Ireland has drawn between her horrific zombie world and the one we inhabit today. Are POC (People of Color) still, in a way, enslaved? Are they expected to work for the benefit and amusement of white folks, especially white folks in power? Do we have a Jane McKeene in 2018 who’s leading the way to justice and freedom with one hand while battling demons with the other? Is there an outspoken voice who’s not afraid to stand up for what’s right, even when their opponents scream loudly to silence them? Colin Kaepernick, Malala Yousafzai, and Laverne Cox are a few that come to mind. Are we listening, and are we willing to follow them into battle? These are the thoughts I sat with long after the blood spilled in the pages had dried.
Ireland wraps up Dread Nation in such a way that feels satisfying and not too cliffhanger-ish. Honestly, I hadn’t even known that this was the first in a series until after I’d read it, so I was thrilled to find out that I get to follow Jane on more shambler-slaying adventures. Zombies aren’t generally on my radar as a subject matter I seek out in my reading material, so I was pleasantly suprised at how accessible this was for someone who doesn’t do the horror genre. The amazing protagonist, fast-paced storytelling, excellent supporting characters, and metaphorical commentary on social justice issues were more than enough to hold my attention. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into more of Dread Nation. (Too punny? Lemme try again.) I’m dying to read more. (Nope; that’s not it, either.) Reading this book is a no-brainer. (Okay, I’m done.)