Book Review: Dread Nation
By: Justina Ireland
Published By: Balzer & Bray
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Page Count: 455
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via Edelweiss
Young Adult - Historical Fantasy, Paranormal
Jane hasn't had the easiest upbringing as the black daughter of a white socialite during the Civil War. As you can imagine, tongues wag with speculation about Jane's father and how the master of the plantation will react when he returns from war. Racial discrimination aside, Jane also must deal with the fact that a zombie plague has descended upon the United States after the dead rose at Gettysburg and began to feast on the flesh of the living.
Growing up in this society teaches Jane to rely on herself and learn to hone her skills. As other black children are rounded up and taken from their homes to study in combat boarding schools, Jane's mother keeps her safely hidden away, but when Jane reaches a certain age she can no longer be contained. As such, Jane finds herself at a prestigious combat school in Baltimore where she learns how to kill shamblers (aka zombies) while also being taught all the things to make her a well educated lady. These girls are being prepared for a life as an Attendant, a ladies maid of sorts who specializes in protecting their employer from becoming an undead's dinner. Jane doesn't fancy the idea of being an Attendant someday; she truly wants to learn skills that will help protect her family and home, Rose Hill, a plantation in Virginia.
As Jane begins to learn that not everything in Baltimore is exactly as it seems, she lands in a whole heap of trouble. Beside her are Jackson, a former beau and conman, and Katherine, a beautiful classmate who wants to follow the rules and live in the height of fashion. This trio must learn to work together if they are going to survive the racism and violence on the Kansas plains in a planned community called Summerland. The community is supposed to be an oasis away from the dead, but its led by a group of Survivalists who want the world to return to the way it was prior to the War Between the States, slavery and all. Needless to say, Jane clashes with the leaders of the town from the moment her feet hit the soil.
On the surface, Summerland appears to be a dream come true - if you're wealthy and white - but there are secrets and a dark undercurrent running through the town. Jane has never been the sort to let things lie, especially in the face of injustice, so she begins to investigate the town and its ongoings on. She will soon learn more about the darkness of the human soul than she ever wanted to know. It's not just the restless dead who have an insatiable hunger. Power, prejudice, and wealth can drive people to do unspeakable things to others. Also, the few times I have driven through Kansas felt like a horror moving waiting to happen. All of that wide open space gave me the creeps and is the perfect setting for a town like Summerland.
Justina Ireland has managed to weave together a compelling historical fantasy that is in my top reads of 2018. Not only did I love her take on zombies and the historical details of Dread Nation, but I felt that her commentary on race relations in the United States is relevant to today's circumstances. Furthermore, you can't read this novel without spending time thinking about feminism. Jane is a kickbutt, take no crap kind of heroine. She's smart, skilled, and ruthless when someone she cares for is in danger. She's the sort of girl I would certainly want on my side during a zombie invasion.
The whole system Jane lives in is heartbreaking and sadly so much of that portion of the novel was grounded in truth. The ending of the American Civil War certainly didn't put an end to racism even as slavery came to an end. In the South, sharecroppers and tenant farmers rose to freedom only to be held in the grasp of the white landowners once more. In addition, the idea of forcing children to attend a boarding school and to be taught by "civilized" people is also not a fictional construct. As mentioned by the author, Native American Boarding schools were a very real and tragic part of the American historical narrative. These schools, in part, inspired Jane's story. I appreciated the way these schools were handled in the novel. After teaching Native students in a community that had a boarding school in the past, I know how awful this part of history was and how its attempts to destroy tribal cultures laid the groundwork for mistrust and pain that still lingers on reservations today.
If you're a fan of historical fiction with a supernatural twist, this is a must read. Not only is the heroine fabulous and the story compelling, but it will also force you to confront your own feelings about race, injustice, and socio-economic status.
One Last Gripe: The ending has some resolution, but left plenty of unanswered questions for the next volume. My complaint though is not knowing the fate of certain characters.
Favorite Thing About This Book: The feminist elements
First Sentence: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.
Favorite Character: Jane
Least Favorite Character: The Preacher
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. 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.