Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Updated: Sep 8
Genre: Young Adult, Speculative fiction
Content Warning: violence, mild language
Dread Nation (2018, 480 pages) is the fifth book by American writer, Justina Ireland. The young adult novel is a New York Times’ bestseller and was nominated for the 2019 Hugo Ward’s Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book. Dread Nation is the first novel in Ireland’s 2-book speculative fiction/alternate history series of the same name (the second book, The Deathless Divide was released in 2020). The novel is narrated by Jane McKeene, a Black teen who was born on Rose Hill plantation to the “richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky”, two days before “the dead rose up and started to walk on a battlefield in a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.” At the start of the novel, Jane is around 17 years old and training at a combat school in Baltimore, where she acquires combat skills that she hopes to use to protect her mother and their home from the hordes of the undead, or “shamblers”, that roam areas outside the walled Eastern cities.
Dread Nation is set in an alternate Civil War-era America where the Union and Confederate armies agree to stop fighting each other and join forces to fight shamblers instead. But although slavery is abolished, in the aftermath of the war Congress passes the Negro and Native Reeducation Act, where Congress funds combat schools to train Black and Native American pre-teens and teens to fight the dead and defend the big cities. The problem is that Black and Native American parents and children have no choice in the matter and the government sends enforcement officers to the countryside in search of Black and Native American children to send to these schools. Jane is fortunate to land in one of the most prestigious combat schools, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore. At Miss Preston’s, young Black women are trained in etiquette, which Jane hates, and combat for several years, instead of the few months of combat training offered at other combat schools: “Half the Negroes from those programs end up a shamble their first month on the job.”
At Miss Preston’s, Jane meets her rival Katherine, an “offensively pretty” student whose light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes make Jane: “question the school’s admissions criteria”. Jane’s dislike of Katherine stems from one simple fact: “She’s the prettiest girl at Miss Preston’s, and I figure that’s as good a reason as any to hate her.” Unlike Jane, Katherine takes her etiquette training as seriously as she does her combat training and desires to be an “Attendant” – part bodyguard, part lady’s maid – for a wealthy white family. Unfortunately, Katherine’s plans are upended when she decides to follow Jane and Jane’s former beau, Jackson “Red Jack” Keats, on a late-night excursion to find Jackson’s missing sister, Lily. While at the home of the family where Lily lived, the trio unwittingly stumble upon a conspiracy involving Baltimore’s mayor, a “survivalist”, and other members of this white supremacist movement: “Survivalists believe that the continued existence of humanity depends on securing the safety of white Christian men and women – whites being superior and closest to God – so that they might ‘set about rebuilding the country in the image of its former glory,’ the way it was before the War Against the Dead.” When the trio are discovered in a compromising situation, they are sent to a Survivalist utopia in Kansas named Summerland. The remainder of the book follows Jane, Katherine and Red Jack, as they adjust to their changed circumstances and try to survive in a very hostile environment: “It’s a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part.”
I read Dread Nation for my book club and I wasn’t sure whether I would like it because I had never read a book about zombies before, but man, was I happy I did! I loved Jane’s character, she is smart, “[o]nce I read something, I know it forever”; witty, “I have always considered pursuing a life on the stage if this whole killing-the-dead thing doesn’t work out”; plucky, “it's much better to just be all-around prepared, since the best defense is a good offense” and; strong-willed “ain’t no sense in doing something if you ain’t going to go for broke”. Jane is all of these things, while still being an endearing teenager: “I have always been a complete and utter muttonhead for a clever boy, even when I’m half delirious with pain”. But one of the great strengths of this book is that Jane is not the only well-written or intriguing female character, Jane’s mother, who is never named, also looms large throughout the book in spite of the fact that we only learn about her through her letters at start every chapter and Jane’s flashbacks to her childhood. Other interesting female characters include Katherine Deveraux, who, despite her beauty and the attention she gets from men, never intends to marry and who, despite her ability to pass as white, never wavers in her identity as a Black woman. Even the auxiliary female characters like the Duchess, a brothel owner, and Auntie Aggie, the Black maid who raised Jane, are interesting in their own right.
In Dread Nation, Ireland draws heavily from African American and Native American history in America to create a world that is unnervingly similar to our own. Using African American history, Ireland demonstrates how the abolition of slavery did nothing to dismantle its concatenated rigid racial hierarchy and that slavery can be re-constituted and repackaged to suit the changing needs of white society, even in a country overrun with the undead. Using Native American history, Ireland borrows the idea of combat schools from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918), a federally-funded boarding school for Native American children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which had the express purpose of forcibly assimilating Native Americans into Euro-American culture in an attempt to “Kill the Indian: Save the Man”. Bringing these two histories together into a unique and entertaining story is why Dread Nation is such a riveting read. In the afterword Ireland makes explicit the central theme of the book: “if well-meaning Americans could do such a thing [Indian boarding schools] to an already wholly subjugated community in a time of peace, what would they do in a time of desperation?”
Another thing I loved about the novel is the dialogue. Dread Nation is replete with witty one-liners and repartees and Jane’s banter with Red Jack or the clever things she mutters to herself are among the novel's most memorable features: “Momma always said a healthy serving of scorn before dinner keeps a girl slim.” I love a good one-liner and this book has a lot of them! Also, I appreciated Ireland’s decision not to include a love story as a central plot point. There are clues that the second book may feature a romantic relationship and Jane’s complicated relationship to Red Jack is a recurring theme throughout the book, but for the most part Dread Nation forgoes the need for a serious romantic interest for the female protagonist. I find Ireland’s choice very refreshing because when the female protagonist is in a relationship or pursuing one, the relationship can sometimes overshadow the main plot and take away from the woman’s agency. Instead, the book’s central relationship is the growing friendship between Jane and Katherine, as both young women learn to rely on and trust each other’s instincts.
Relatedly, Ireland decided not to have a male protagonist to serve as Jane’s sidekick or helpmate, in other words, there was no “Peeta” (the Hunger Games) to Dread Nation’s “Katniss”. I loved this as well because it allowed more space to flush out the female characters and it felt period appropriate since young women in 1800s America would not have much interaction with young men outside of courtship. And because Ireland focuses on the female characters, a book club member noted, she doesn’t waste time digging into the psyche of the novel’s most brutal male characters to understand why they are the way they are and why they do the things they do. Ireland resists the urge that so many writers fall victim to, which is to try to find some explanation for a character’s evil actions/behavior, but the fact is, some people are evil because they want to be and they know they can get away with it. Ireland understands that it is not always necessary, or appropriate, to understand why people do evil things.
But in spite of the oppressive society in which Jane, Katherine and Red Jack live, this review points out that the trio demonstrate a deadly practicality in the face of dehumanizing violence and a “cunning, proactive ability to manipulate white prejudice to survive.” This is a lesson Jane learnt at an early age: “Momma used to say there were lots of ways to survive. Don't be afraid to pretend to be something you aren't, Jane. Sometimes a little subterfuge and chicanery is in order and the quickest way to achieve one's goal.” In short, there are no victims in Dread Nation and, over the course of the book, both Jane and Katherine prove to all those who have underestimated them: “I am more than my skin color.” Due to Ireland’s extensive use of allegory to explore issues such as racism, classism, feminism, sexism, colorism and bigotry, the novel never feels too heavy – one notable exception being when a character is savagely attacked – or preachy. Instead, Ireland relies on tools that are part of every good writer’s skillset - an excellent plot, compelling characters, interesting situations and fascinating details.
I think those who enjoyed Tomi Adeyemi’s young adult fantasy/adventure trilogy, Children of Blood and Bone, will love Dread Nation. Both novels take place in an alternate timeline/world and feature fearless young female protagonists with female sidekicks, who fight monsters, and who are forced to become leaders when others are not up to the task. But although these two novels share many similarities, Dread Nation’s historical realism and its explicit commentary on race, class and gender in America makes it a more sobering, but equally exciting, read.
I love Dread Nation and I give it 5 out of 5 stars. I would recommend it even to readers who don’t usually read speculative fiction or young adult novels. Dread Nation is a great addition to the growing number of young adult novels written by Black and other minority authors that feature Black/minority protagonists, a rare feat in the increasingly homogenous world of young adult fiction. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to read this delightful book and I can’t wait to finish book 2, The Deathless Divide.