Dread Nation is exquisite. Theory meets practice in this explosive novel. It is as thrilling to your mind as it is to your heart.
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.
Dread Nation was phenomenal. Everything from the cover to the themes to the characters. I knew I was going to love this and I did! Don’t you just love that vindicated feeling when you’re entirely right about a book? When the dreams you had for it come true? I want everyone and their extended family to read Dread Nation.
I just have to start with the themes because these just blew me over the top. There was such a quiet intelligence, a social commentary, and a powerful current present in these themes (which both makes no sense to someone who hasn’t read this, and me who is just gasping these words out).
- Internal v. External Monsters: We know that this book has two things: racism and zombies. Ireland plays with this stunning juxtaposition by hiding the true monsters in plain sight. Is it more dangerous to be a monster on the outside or the inside? Who should we really fear? Those who are rotting on the outside or those whose heart is already rotten?
- (Passing) Privilege: One of the characters is able to pass for white, and it brings up such important conversations about privilege and the challenges each of them face.
- Human Value: One big point that Ireland makes is that in this system, the upper echelons of society, and white people, are 100% okay with sacrificing black, and Native American, people for themselves. It’s about that basic question of whose lives are valuable? And by extension, who do we deem as human? This has been illustrated through the ages as science has animalized black people, or treated them (and viewed them) like animals.
- Science and Racism: This was SO well done. We have little snippets of science lectures that illustrate the ways that racism pervades into not only our culture, but our understanding of science.
- Performativity: A few times Jane needs to ‘perform’ to survive – pay attention to these scenes, because while they seem a bit cheeky, they are so telling. They illustrae this performance, this spectacle – a playing with people’s expectations – and a heart breaking need to perform to survive. (This includes women, sex workers, and black women in this instance).
I just want to say also that while racism isn’t a theme, because it’s just ingrained into the fabric of the society, it is phenomenal how many ways Ireland explores this. There are explicit ways that make our rage boil, simmering and building heat, and then there are implicit incidents that ask us – how much has changed?
It is one of those fantastic books that illustrates the power of speculative fiction, and in this case also somewhat historical fiction – to shed light on our society.
Ireland has this technique where at the beginning of every chapter, there’s a title (which is always so witty like “in which I prove my worth”) and a snippet of a letter. They’re mostly Jane’s letters to her mother. I adored this juxtaposition because it not only compares what she is telling her mother about her school and her treatment and this really empathetic vulnerability as they progress. This was such a subtle way for us to get to know Jane.
Jane (and the other Characters too I guess)
Jane is my hero. There’s this practicality, this honesty, and this wisdom that comes from her words. She has a very no fuss way of looking at life. In some ways, Jane is smart beyond her time – she has this scientific understanding that I admire because I remember how science classes in school just made my brain into zombie mush. At the same time, she doesn’t delude herself – she knows she’s sacrificing her life for a system that doesn’t acknowledge her existence. Yet, she retains her humanity in a world overrun by zombies, and monsters masquerading as men.
Even beyond this, Jane is just hilarious. She has a keen sense of drama and performance. Quick on her feet, Jane is one of my dream heroines. I just cannot get enough of her.
I cannot sing the praises of Dread Nation enough. It is clever, thought provoking, and a great read. It doesn’t get bogged down, instead giving us just enough of a seed for us to watch it bloom ourselves. There were so many other phenomenal touches (like a character named Othello, or the Tom Sawyer book) that I am so obsessed with. Consider me a fan for life. I will be there to support it until the end of time.
You need to check out Dread Nation on Goodreads.