Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. ★★★★1/2
At the battle of Gettysburg, the dead began to walk, changing history forever. Jane McKeene was born only a few days after that historic event, and she has never known a world where humanity isn’t threatened by the ravenous hunger of their own dead. Under the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, Jane and other black children are required to go to combat schools and then enter patrols to fight the dead. Jane attends the prestigious Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, and upon graduation, she is expected to go into service to a wealthy white woman, becoming her personal protector. Jane isn’t much interested in becoming a companion. Instead, she wants to return to the Kentucky plantation of her birth, where she hopes her mother is still alive. But Jane’s plans are derailed by a massive conspiracy, one that will see her struggling to survive in both the undead and some all too human threats.
From the start, Dread Nation presents a compelling and gripping narrative. I may or may not have stayed up until 2 AM reading it. Okay, I totally did. It’s just so good! The pacing is fast, and there’s plenty of action. It’s so easy to promise yourself, “just one more chapter…” until you’ve finished the entire book.
Jane is a wonderful protagonist, and I adored her narrative voice. She’s smart and strong willed, entirely capable. She’s also got just a touch of sarcasm to her, but not enough to get the point where it’s overwhelming or annoying. Oh, and the narrative briefly mentions that she’s bi, and there’s an ace supporting character! I’m so, so happy about this.
“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.”
When trying to convince my friends to read Dread Nation, I’ve been giving the elevator pitch of, “Black girl fights both zombies and racism. Which is worse? Spoiler alert, it’s probably the racism.” Dread Nation obviously deals a whole lot with race and racism. Only black children are trained to fight the zombies, and they’re expected to protect white families. In fact, white people begin coming up with racist pseudo-science to explain why this should be. I’ve read other historical zombie stories where the divisions between people fall away in the face of the undead. Dread Nation takes a different view — in times of trouble, bigotry only increases.
One of the things I love about Dread Nation is how the most important relationship is between two female characters, Jane and Katherine. Katherine is a white-passing girl at Miss Preston’s school, and she and Jane are initially at odds. During the course of the story, events throw them together. Their alliance is uneasy to begin with, but by the end they are fast friends. I can’t tell you how much I loved their relationship arc! It’s also particularly wonderful to see a YA novel that prizes friendship over romance. While there’s definite hints of potential romances for Jane, it’s mostly left as something for the sequels to explore.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt, either from a letter from Jane to her mother or vice versa. I really liked this decision. Jane’s past and her relationship with her mother is a huge driving force. We get flashbacks to it throughout the book, but the excerpts from letters really help to strengthen the reader’s belief in their relationship.
It is worth mentioning that some Native American readers have critiqued the Native representation in Dread Nation. See Debbie Reese’s comments on the American Indians in Children’s Literature website, for instance.
Overall, my experience reading Dread Nation was wonderful. I’m sure this will be one of my favorite books of the year, and I can’t wait for book two!