“Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education 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.”
My Thoughts: One would think that the threat of a zombie horde would be enough for people to throw off their prejudices and come together for the greater good. It turns out that in Justina Ireland’s mind, this is nothing by idyllic fancy. Dead soldiers rising from battlefields do nothing but strengthen those prejudices and give people reasons to build societies that strictly enforce the subjugation of those not considered of the proper color, gender, or (heaven forbid) sexual preference.
I feel like Ms. Ireland’s re-imagining of the Civil War was cathartic in many ways while also finding a way to channel her anger and frustration at the current U.S. administration into a healthier exercise. After all, there are plenty of zombie deaths on which to take her vengeance. Yet, at the same time, Dread Nation is disturbingly similar to our current unrest here in the U. S. There are blowhard politicians who bend the truth to fit their agenda. There are old, white men who want nothing more than to subjugate every woman and every person of color to servitude. There are the intelligent and fiercely capable women forced to do men’s bidding while finding ways to save the day. Yes, it may take place in the late 1800s, but this allows Ms. Ireland to reiterate that the more time that passes, the more some things just never change.
While Ms. Ireland throws plenty of punches regarding racial and gender discrimination, extreme religious belief systems, romantic tropes, and more, this is above all things a novel…about zombies and a kick-ass young woman who battles them. Jane is a no-nonsense gal who knows her strengths and weaknesses, whether they involve weapons or men. She understands the rules and limitations set in place by society but manages to keep to the very edge of those limitations and does so with impunity. While she could lament her lot in life, she constantly strives for better and imagines a future where the color of your skin is not a limitation and that your intelligence and ability to defend yourself are what set you apart from your peers. She knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. Feisty, confident, intelligent, and fierce, Jane is quite a force of reckoning. She is also highly entertaining as she always lets you know what she feels about any given situation.
The story itself is intriguing. In this first novel, while the zombies drive the action, much of the story revolves around establishing sides. There are those like Jane who believe in training and arming everyone because zombies pose the biggest threat to society, and there are those unlike Jane who believe that the zombies are there to show people the error of deviating from the Holy Bible and the racial and gender divisions established in there. This takes on political importance when Jane realizes that zombies are not her only foes, and the story flows from there.
You could almost think of Dread Nation as a Civil War version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer complete with snark and a disregard for common sense in dangerous situations. Jane even ends up forming her own version of a Scooby gang as she finds several situations where going it alone is the best way to certain death. Also like Buffy, Jane confronts injustices and other tough topics with bravado and humor, endearing her even more to you. Jane McKeene is the perfect heroine not only for the story but also as a role model for modern women, and Dread Nation is an all-around engaging yet important novel. With zombies.