Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Summary: 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.
Welcome to the Rich in Color discussion of Dread Nation
**Beware, there are some spoilers ahead.**
K. Imani: First thoughts, what did you think of the book? I both greatly enjoyed it and was unsettled by it at the same time. My first read went fast because I was so invested in the story, the mystery, and let’s face it, the fight against the shamblers, but yet the realness of the racism was hard to stomach. While that was hard to read, I’m glad that Ireland didn’t hold back as it felt very real to the world that would have developed if the Civil War ended differently. I have to admit that I had dreams about the world of Dread Nation days after I first finished it. That’s how much this novel stuck with me.
Crystal: I’m not saying that they are all that similar, but I felt some of the same things as when I read Kindred. The story is unique and extremely compelling, but there are many unnerving events and issues too. There is some serious ugliness and it’s not the zombies.
Audrey: I really enjoyed it! I love zombie stories and alternate histories, so the mashup of those made me extremely happy, especially since Ireland tackled anti-black racism head on. The book was fast-paced, and I really enjoyed the letter excerpts that preceded every chapter. They helped fill in Jane’s backstory and, along with the chapter titles, set up the tone for the next bit of the narrative.
Jessica: I read most of it in one night. And then I stayed up for several more hours, still thinking about it and jumping at noises. Zombies are no joke.
K. Imani: The world building in Dread Nation is impressive. I was both amazed by the level of detail that Justina Ireland put into this and disturbed at the same time, especially when we get to Summerland. The world that she created felt true and real to what life would be like 17 years after the Civil War turned into a war against zombies and basic survival. I like how innovation was spurred because of the need for safety and that inventions that came much later in our history occurred earlier in Dread Nation (ie the “Ponies”). What other aspects of Ireland’s world building stood out to you?
Audrey: For me, that’s one of the favorite parts of alternate histories is watching how things diverge and how different tech develops due to new demands (aka need to kill and defend against zombies). The Ponies were a great one, and I also liked the inclusion of zombie-powered electricity. (Though Gideon wanted to use a river, which is definitely more practical and less dangerous, in order to create an electric fence that could fry zombies.) On a more mundane level, another thing I appreciated was how fashion changed–shorter skirts for ease of movement/fighting for the Attendants, and the running joke about corsets.
Speaking of world building, I ran across this Twitter thread from Debbie Reese (and part two) on some problems/concerns with the Native content in the book. A few of the things had registered for me as feeling off (the use of “well meaning,” for example), but I’ll admit that a lot of it flew over my head. It also was a bit concerning for me that Daniel was the only indigenous character and he seemed mostly on the bad guys’ side.
Jessica: Yeah, I kept waiting for him to reveal himself as secretly undercover, and free Jane and Katherine. (I also kept waiting for him to turn out to be a love interest.) Jackson’s explanation about how Daniel helped him escape and how Daniel is “just a man trying to play the hand that life dealt him” made a lot of sense. Many characters have no choice but to go along with all the terrible things that are happening, and are just doing their best to survive. At the same time, according to the Mayor, Daniel was responsible for catching Jane and Katherine in the first place when they were snooping, so I’m not sure how that fits in with Jackson’s explanation. (“Well-meaning” is definitely not the right word for the school system discussed in the Author’s Note, but I hope the greater context of the note and story pushes back against that. It’ll be interesting to see where Daniel’s character goes from here.)
Crystal: What I appreciated was that Jane seemed to notice the difference between people’s perceptions of Native people and actual Native people. As I was reading I thought it was great that Ireland included the presence of Native people in the world she created and mentioned the residential schools because those schools are often absent in historical fiction. Some of the text made me stop and honestly wonder what Debbie or another Native reader would think though. It felt like Ireland was really trying to be inclusive and address some of the stereotypes that have been pervasive in other stories, but I also felt there were some mis-steps even though I couldn’t always identify why something was bothering me. Debbie Reese’s tweets helped me understand some of the disconnects. Like Debbie, I believe that Ireland cares deeply about representation and getting it right. I think conversations around representation need to happen and I hope that authors, editors, publishers and readers can learn from having these discussions.
K. Imani: All throughout the Summerland portion of the book I did keep wondering how that Native nations were dealing with the shamblers and how their lives had changed because of the zombies. Of course, Jane explaining the concept of the schools let us know that the war over the plain states still occurred to a certain extent, but I feel like when Jane informed us that the American soldiers did not chase down the kids who escaped the schools just further reinforced the racial discrimination that PoC found in this world. That hurt me too, in that I wa disgusted that the government would leave these kids to fend for themselves against shamblers who were roaming the lands. That’s so cold-blooded and disturbing, but then again, this novel was not meant to be an escapist fantasy. I think it was meant to be disturbing as Ireland did not hold back on the ugliness of racial discrimination towards PoC in this book. On the other hand, I too was uncomfortable with the only Native in the novel being Daniel Redfern and disappointed that he was working with the enemy, however we learn that that isn’t quite true and he could be more like a Snape character. I have a feeling we’ll know more about him in the second novel (at least I hope so).
K. Imani: One of the aspects of this story I really loved the the friendship between Jane and Katherine that developed throughout the story. These two were “frenemies” and then really became to rely on each other. Their relationship was written so beautifully and I loved that the main “ship” of the novel was about friendship and not a romance.
Crystal: Jane and Katherine’s relationship was something I also really enjoyed. They both learned a lot about each other throughout the book and found many things to admire. They grudgingly work together in the beginning, but over time, they learn to depend on one another and they are in it for the long haul. It’s my favorite relationship for sure.
Audrey: I adored Jane and Katherine’s slow-building friendship. I’ll admit to being a little worried about how they clashed at first, but there’s nothing like facing down zombies and trying to survive a religiously white supremacist town together to forge a friendship. While Katherine was relatively privileged due to her ability to “pass,” I appreciated that Jane realized that it didn’t mean Katherine had it easy. Some of the dangers to Katherine were different, but a lot of them were still the same.
Jessica: My favorite interactions in the book were Jane and Katherine’s uneasy alliance turned friendship. I rooted really hard for the both of them. I loved that Jane is shown to have misjudged Katherine, and she grows to sympathize with her more later on. I wish this had happened more with other characters as well. There were several moments where it felt like Jane was judging others for being far more downtrodden, or just not as intelligent and educated as she was. But I guess delving into every character Jane meets would make for a mile-long book…
K. Imani: Summerland. Scary or nah? For me, the small town was terrifying and it wasn’t because of the Ishamblers. The pastor, sheriff, and all the people who believed in “restoring order” in the name of “safety” is what scared me the most. I found disturbing parallels between them and what is going on in our society today, which is why this book stayed with me for days (seriously, I had dreams days later). What terrified you about Summerland?
Crystal: Summerland was definitely scary. Like you, I found that protection or restoring order in the name of safety creates a scenario with the potential for extremely dangerous situations. One of the characters says, “…if you can sell people on a dream of security and prosperity, then the facts are irrelevant.” Once you convince people that everything you’re doing will bring those two things, they tend to want to believe that and will allow the loss of many liberties in exchange for the chance to have wealth and safety. This is especially true if the people who are affected the most are those who are not in power.
Audrey: Summerland is a thing of nightmares, especially since it was built upon white supremacist readings of the Bible. It’s no mistake that religion (the pastor) and the law (the sheriff) were the iron fists of the town. One provided the “holy” justification for putting boots on the people’s necks and the other provided the boots. Summerland was a place where, once you get people thinking they’re doing god’s will by restoring “the natural order,” they’ll see any kind of dissent or disruption as a sin. Anytime the pastor showed up, my skin crawled.
Jessica: The sheriff and pastor were both deeply horrifying to me, and a lot of the things they said can be pretty easily linked to the harmful and toxic rhetoric politicians and leaders use today, regarding order and keeping people safe and so on. The other thing that scared me was the hamster wheel of shamblers. Mr. Gideon kept popping up with his different science experiments and innovations, but it was hard for me to like him, because he was complicit in all this, however reluctant and enlightened he was.
Do any of you believe Gideon’s vaccine is for real? He seems pretty sure of it, but it’s hard to trust a guy who, again, sat by and watched all these atrocities be committed and only offered a can of peaches as consolation. I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel for a number of reasons, and one of those is finding out what exactly is Gideon’s game. Is he for real? Why is he a love interest (is he one or did I misread all that)? Did he really create that vaccine ethically or did he also use inhumane practices?
Crystal: I also have many questions around Gideon. It’s difficult to completely trust him as he is embroiled in this city, though he clearly doesn’t support the vision of the founders. That vaccine is something I want to know more about. I know these types of questions definitely make me want to read more.
Audrey: My suspicious self wants to say that the vaccine is real, but that it does not work entirely as intended. Like, it doesn’t keep you from turning undead, but it does keep you from losing yourself–so you’re a zombie, but you’re not a mindless one, you’re still you. But that’s just my wild theorizing. In the meantime, I really don’t trust Gideon. I don’t imagine he made the vaccine ethically at all.
K. Imani: Great question. I actually don’t trust Gideon’s vaccine, especially since he’s testing it only on Black folk (though he says he took it but I’m not sure I trust him). To me it was too reminiscent of the Tuskegee experiment and other experiments that were done to Black people during slavery (which I’m sure was Ireland’s point). As for the man himself, I’m not too sure if I trust him. I felt like he was a “prisoner” in his own way, as he was forced to be there by his father, but then again, I felt like he just went along to go along even though he knew Summerland was wrong and never tried to stir anything up until Jane and Katherine arrived. I guess we’ll know more about him in the sequel.
Crystal: I found it interesting how the Thirteenth Amendment showed up here. It involves the loss of rights as a person due to zombie bites and/or if you’re a criminal. Technically, slavery is over, but as one character explains, “Lots of different ways to pretty up the same old evils.” Even though it’s an alternative history, Ireland managed to weave in so many parallels from our current and past world.
Jessica: Ida (the one who said that quote, I believe) is definitely one of my favorite side characters, and I hope she makes it to the sequel. She spoke so much truth, and had her head on right.
K. Imani: I think that Ireland used the zombie schools to specifically point out the 13th Amendment was genius. It was clear that the schools were an allegory for the school to prison pipeline in our society and how the 13th is definitely another form of slavery. Another aspect of the novel that disturbed me so much, but yet left me hoping that folks who need to read this book understand how dangerous the school to prison pipeline is and how detrimental it is to our society.
Audrey: Was anyone else thrilled when Jane and Katherine had their conversation about who they were attracted to? I was delighted that Jane liked girls as well as guys, but I almost danced when Katherine said she’d never been attracted to anyone. I’m dying for more ace/aro representation, so I was thrilled when Katherine came out and said it–and how Jane’s reaction was, “oh, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.” It made my day.
Jessica: *Raises hand* I was super thrilled! I liked that Jane talked about being bi and Katherine talked about being (possibly) ace/aro in the same conversation and accepted each other for who they were — right before going out and kicking butt.
Crystal: This was a part of the story I also appreciated. These kinds of conversations are ones I hope to see more of in YA.
K. Imani: I loved it so much! I liked that Jane wasn’t tortured by being bi and that is was just a part of who she was, and I really loved the conversation Katherine and Jane had when Katherine said she wasn’t attracted to anyone. It was a beautiful conversation between two friends and a real bonding moment; moments that I think we need to see more of in YA, which also made me glad that their friendship was the main “ship” of this novel.
Jessica: What did you guys think of the Egalitarians and the Survivalists? It was interesting that early on, the Spencers (who are Egalitarians) fell on hard times and joined up with the Survivalists. The Spencers, along with Mr. Gideon, are good examples of people who claim to have one set of political beliefs, but end up going along with something much more harmful and bigoted.
Audrey: That’s a good point–the Spencers and Gideon do very little (or nothing) to push back against Summerland and what it represents. It’ll be interesting to see if Gideon can redeem himself (provided he’s alive after that ending…)
K. Imani: You make an excellent point about the Spencers and Gideon and I see them as an allegory to all the “well-meaning white folk” in our society today. All the people who voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety” but were okay with his racist and xenophobic attitudes because they have a “PoC friend.”
If you’ve already read Dread Nation, we’d love to hear your thoughts! If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, we recommend you get it soon.