‘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.
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.’
Whilst on the surface Dread Nation seems like a fairly straightforward alternate history story there’s a lot more to the world of the zombie-filled reconstruction-era America that Justina Ireland has created than it would at first appear.
Set within a world where the undead brought the American Civil War to an abrupt end, readers follow Jane, the black daughter of a wealthy white plantation owner, as she trains to become an Attendant, a bodyguard for a wealthy white woman.
‘An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.’
Following the end of the war the government established the Native and Negro Reeducation Act: an initiative that would train First Nation children and children of colour to fight zombies. This is one of the first places that it becomes apparent that there’s more to Dread Nation than just kick-arse women of colour fighting the undead. The combat schools created by the NNRA are based a lot more within reality than you would expect. For decades in the history of the United States native children were ripped from their families and sent to schools where they would be taught to be ‘civilised’ – to act like white people. This was often presented as something that would benefit these children, a way of bringing them into society and bettering them, where in reality it was often brutal and incredibly damaging. The combat schools are no different.
In the early parts of the book Jane is often worried about getting kicked out of Miss Preston’s. This isn’t because she wants the social advantage that graduating from the school would bring (think the Attendant version of Harvard or Princeton), but rather because many of the other schools are lacking. They train only a fraction as hard and over a shorter period, which often means that those graduating don’t last long. A background element to the story, this is a surprising commentary on how many systems in the United States are structured against people of colour, offering just enough that white people feel that they’ve done something good to help, yet failing to actually provide POC with anything that actually gives them any real advantages or advancements.
As the book goes on the commentary on life in America for POC only gets stronger, as more and more overt racism moves to the fore. This mainly comes from the antagonists of the book, rich white men who belong to the Survivalists, a political group that wants to ‘take back America’ and make things like they were before. Whilst slavery is now illegal in this world these people make it their mission to find workarounds for these laws, using black people as front line defenders against the undead, yet failing to provide them with real weaponry, keeping them shut away behind the scenes, giving them barely enough food to live, and brutally torturing them when they break the rules. Slavery in everything but name.
We get to see Jane, a young black woman who grew up treated well and sheltered from the horrors of slavery, have to face the harsh reality of life before the undead, and those who want to bring that world back. She’s not a fool, she’s faced prejudice countless times herself, but the events of the book push her to her physical and emotional limits. Accompanying her throughout most of the events of the novel is Katherine, a fellow student from Miss Preston’s. Katherine, however, is fair enough to pass as white, and has to play this role for a portion of the story.
This allows us to observe a new and mostly unexplored approach to racism: a black woman who everyone thinks is white having to see and hear awful racist things and not only not say anything, but to play along with it. Katherine begins the book as an annoying character, and something of an enemy for Jane, but by the final pages she’s an incredibly well rounded person, and one who has more than earned both ours and Jane’s affection.
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One of the more surprising elements of the book is the lack of any romantic subplot, something that most books shoehorn in. These are strong and independent young women who not only don’t need men in their lives, but frankly don’t have the time to worry about romance whilst fighting to survive.
As well as representing people of colour, Dread Nation features LGBT+ leads. In a scene towards the end of the book it’s revealed that not only is Jane bisexual, but that Katherine is asexual. There’s isn’t a huge amount made of this, and it doesn’t hugely impact the story, yet it’s still great to see such positive representation. The characters aren’t defined by their sexuality, nor does it dictate events.
Dread Nation is a book with surprising layers, a story that on the surface is an action adventure story with women of colour fighting zombies in an alternate history. But beneath this is a look at racism and slavery in America, a story that shows that even though laws change and politics alter, people are still judged solely on the colour of their skin. Though never having been treated poorly due to the colour of my skin, as a transgender woman it’s easy to understand what it’s like to be judged as soon as someone sees you, because of who you are. Dread Nation captures these feelings perfectly: it puts you in the shoes of someone who is trapped in this life of hate and prejudice but can’t escape from it, even when they prove to be a more competent, kinder, and braver person than those in power.
A book with something important to say, Dread Nation is sure to stick with you long after you finish reading.