Justina Ireland combines zombies with post-Civil War era uncertainties in her alternate history romp, Dread Nation. So now you know, I’ve read two zombie books by Black authors in as many months. Thankfully, this one is more action-packed and features a high-energy, kick butt young heroine.
Her name is Jane McKeene and she studies at Miss Preston’s Combat School for Girls. That is, young women of color whose future is a job called an Attendant. That’s where zombies come in. Attendants protect the women of white society from the walking dead. While there’s some prestige by association, it’s still serving white folks. And our Jane isn’t so sure that’s the life she wants.
Still, Jane loves her weapons, her training, and definitely gets a rush from sending a zombie or two to final death. When she distinguishes herself in public, the mayor of Baltimore notices her talents. That’s both good news and bad news for Jane. Miss Preston’s girls should be more discreet, but Jane’s not having any of that. And it does come back to bite her in the butt, which is the crux of this story.
Dread Nation is a creative and rollicking historical fiction novel, with that undead twist. Justina Ireland knows how to build a world close to our history but more harrowing. And the fundamental zombie question becomes more complex with racism and classism in the mix.
What Jane faces is either certain undeath at the teeth of a zombie or continued racism at the hands of the white population. Neither option is palatable to her. And that’s what makes Dread Nation worth reading. There’s enough crazy escapism to balance the heavy reality of systemic racism. And Ireland manages both the combination of crisp prose, quirky attitude, and a strong, pissed-off main character.
This is a fantasy / horror story with a side helping of incisive social commentary. Are the zombies actually sentient? Which group of white people will offer the best opportunities to survive both racism and zombies? Or should the black population just overthrow both zombies and the people purported to have all the power?
So despite being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this is a relevant examination of attitudes that continue to this day. I’m just glad the current pandemic hasn’t started a zombie apocalypse. If you’re looking for a fun book with great characters and world building, this is for you.
Pair with Zone One by Colson Whitehead for more zombie fighting. Or consider something serious about how the U.S. government codified housing segregation, like The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. (I promise, it relates to Dread Nation.)