Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
“The waves of dead are like dandelions. Just when you think you’ve beaten the weed, it pops up somewhere new. The Lost States of the South are called that for a reason.”
History gets a serious re-write in this YA historical fiction novel!
The Civil War’s bloodiest battle becomes even more horrific when the dead begin to walk at Gettysburg. Suddenly the war between the states isn’t the main focus of the country. Slavery becomes illegal as soon as the Confederate states surrender so that President Lincoln can send General Sherman on his March to the Sea, burning the South and putting down the dead, known as shamblers.
The federal government soon funds the Negro and Native Reeducation Act mandating that “at 12 years old all Negroes, and any Indians living in a protectorate, must enroll in a combat school ‘for the betterment of themselves and society’.” Combat schools pop up across the country, teaching former slaves how to fight the dead. Young black women train to become Attendants, basically a bodyguard to a wealthy white woman against the dead.
What we learn throughout the book about the shamblers is that once someone is bitten they will begin to shake and their eyes will turn yellow. The rate at which someone turns has changed over time and now it is almost instantaneous. Shamblers travel in packs. The newly turned are quick on their feet and can outrun most people and animals while the older dead are decayed and walk slowly.
Dread Nation is divided in to two parts. In part one, we meet the main character Jane McKeene in Baltimore at Miss Preston’s School of Combat. The black daughter of a wealthy white woman bides her time in school training until she can return home to her family at Rose Hill. Her letters to her mom have gone unanswered for several months and Jane is beginning to fear the worst. (Each chapter in part one begins with an excerpt from a letter Jane writes to her mom.)
The Spencers, a family living close to the school has taken in a girl named Lily who is “fair and passing”, meaning she is light skinned and can pass for white. When they all disappear from their home, Lily’s brother Jackson enlists the help of Jane to find out what happened to them.
Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, ends up tagging along with Jane and Jackson and they soon find out that the Spencers may not have left town willingly. In their search for clues, they uncover alarming information about the safety of Baltimore and its defenses against shamblers.
Their investigation is put to a halt when the mayor finds out they know more than they should and sends them to a new community in Kansas known as Summerland that’s attempting to “rebuild the country in the image of is former glory” (read: continue slavery and all its brutality, while also dealing with swarming packs of shamblers). On the train to Kansas, Jane is given a stack of letters that her mother has written to her that had been intercepted and part two of the book begins. (Each chapter in part two begins with an excerpt from a letter to Jane from her mother, detailing what is happening at Rose Hill.)
Jane is a strong female protagonist with a tongue as sharp as her weapons. I enjoyed her sass, wit, and overall badassery (yes, that’s definitely a word). In a town where people use religion and scripture to justify slavery, Jane must hold her tongue and figure out a plan for her and her friends to escape while trying to contain the pack of shamblers threatening to overrun the town.
Dread Nation is an engaging and highly entertaining YA novel. I enjoyed the history the author created and while zombies aren’t an original concept, this is a unique spin on the genre. I’m definitely looking forward to finding out what happens to Jane, Katherine, and Jackson in the next book.