Chelsea Mancilla, Guest Writer
“Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland is a work of historical fiction that includes numerous elements of fantasy. Set after the Civil War, the dead have risen after the grisly Battle of Gettysburg, and a single bite can infect anyone. Ireland’s story reimagines the Reconstruction era with the perils of the undead roaming across the east coast, or as the book calls them, “Shamblers.”
Although slaves have been freed, many children are forcibly enrolled in schools to train as attendants (soldiers) to protect the wealthy families and cities. Jane McKeene is a student at one of these schools. Despite the fact that her mother is the wife of a plantation owner, McKeene is also the daughter of an unknown slave. Jane often relives fond memories from her home with her mother and Aunt Aggie. From the moment she was born, her aunt always protected her.
At first, Jane was hidden from the recruiters that drafted students into combat schools. She was raised on a plantation in Haller County, Ky. Eventually she is caught and sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. Jane excels in combat, but often disobeys the rules at school. She leaves the grounds to lay down in the meadow and watch the sky, and goes out on the road to kill off Shamblers.
Ireland successfully integrates characters of different backgrounds into her tale. Katherine Deveraux is Jane’s rival at Miss Preston’s School. Deveraux is extremely fair, and is able to pass as white. In the beginning, Katherine and Jane are at odds with each other, but when they are both taken out of Baltimore, they must rely on each other to survive. While Jane and Katherine feel like genuine people, any side characters disappear, and seem like props on a stage.
In “Dread Nation,” the descendants of Africans are blamed for the rising dead, and it is even believed that African Americans are immune to a Shambler’s bite. Even if a person testifies they saw a black person being bitten, that person can be sold like livestock again. Even though the story is set in a very different historical context, there are similarities between this rampant disease that turns people into zombies, and the COVID-19 outbreak that plagues the world today.
Other than the mere fact that they are both world altering diseases, the social effects of COVID-19 on the Asian American community can be compared to the way in which the African American community suffered in the book. Increased racism against those who logically have no culpability for the virus has been experienced by Asian Americans since COVID-19 emerged, and rumors spread about how they all carry the virus, despite the factual inaccuracy of such a statement. The theme of racial oppression is apparent in the story, and one of the ways that it manifests is how Jane must mask her ability and intelligence in order to avoid punishment.
Jane is a well-educated girl, but cannot read in public because it is illegal for African-Americans to read. There are relevant topics in this book regarding equality and race that readers should examine closely.
This book is an intriguing tale, which allows the reader to visit a distant past – albeit with some historical changes. Jane McKeene is a best friend anyone would want by their side when fighting zombies. “Dread Nation” is part of a duology. The second book, titled “Deathless Divide,” will surely serve as a compelling conclusion to the series, as “Dread Nation” will leave readers hungering for more.