If you read only one YA novel this year, make it Dread Nation. Part Zombie Land, part Django Unchained, channeling a bit of The Hunger Games and also something wholly original, this is a tale of what happens when the undead rise while America’s race war rages.
The Civil War is over. But not because the North won. No, the North and South were forced to put aside political differences when the dead rose on the battlefield of Gettysburg, eating anyone living regardless of the color of their uniform. A truce was quickly established and hasty solutions to the serious problem of humanity falling to the zombie plague began. One response is the Negro and Native Reeducation Act. Funded by Congress, these special schools produced young men and women of color expertly trained in the art of zombie killing. Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls is just that kind of establishment. A place where training in etiquette and battle are equally important, the school provides Attendants to young women of good breeding, ensuring that the well-to-do have a lady’s maid who can set a fine table and kill any undead who try to eat the guests.
Jane McKeen is a student at Miss Preston’s. She’s clever, resourceful, deadly with a sickle and a wee bit independent. She’s got no intention of being an Attendant to anyone but her Mama back in Kentucky, and once she’s had her fill of training, she’ll head home and protect the folks on the family plantation. Her plans may be dashed, however, by her poor results in an exam regarding European place settings and the appropriate titles for nobles. Already on probation for the unladylike act of reading newspapers, she is now in danger of expulsion. Jane reluctantly agrees to attend an extra-credit lecture on the science of zombies in order to show she knows how to behave appropriately in a social setting. Unfortunately, her manners at the event are found lacking; fortunately, the professor giving the lecture is attacked by his zombie experiments and Jane’s ability to fight the undead saves the notable attendees, including the mayor’s wife. Her heroics keep her from getting expelled but land her in a whole other heap of trouble.
For unbeknownst to Jane and the other Miss Preston girls, things in the war for the survival of humanity are not going well. Mysterious disappearances are occurring in the local community. And in the area beyond that? Let’s just say that what awaits Jane and her friends beyond Baltimore’s borders is a far more difficult dilemma.
Skillfully combining fantasy and history, Ms. Ireland creates a world which gives thoughtful examination to slavery, Jim Crow, and the Native American boarding school systems which once existed with the goal of destroying native culture and enslaving native children. Through the eyes of the engaging Jane, we examine the theories – scientific and religious – which were used to justify the treatment of fellow Americans as less than human. We also experience the fight for justice, survival and the indomitability of the human spirit through our plucky heroine. And it’s all a heck of a good time. This novel manages to blend the serious and the silly to create a story that at once elucidates and entertains. The zombies are what make the tale. Just when the racism and systematic oppression want to make you scream, they enter the story. Not to say they are funny. They aren’t. But the juxtaposition of our very real horrific history on race issues and the unreality of undead zombies gives the reader a chance to step back from the story while still learning what it is trying to teach.
Jane is everything a YA dystopian heroine should be. Resourceful, resilient, strong, clever, caring, compassionate and wise beyond her years. Her mother, a remarkable woman, taught her many lessons, and Jane learned them all well. She’s not perfect and she’ll tell you that herself. But she is wonderful nonetheless.
The writing here is sublime, the plotting excellent, and because of the first-person narration of Jane the story is incredibly impactful. Pieces of the tale are doled out at exactly the right moment, so that by the time we reach the big personal history reveal at the end of the novel we know the narrative fits our character to a tee.
The secondary characters, from the teachers at the school to Jane’s frenemy Kate, and several other interesting people are well drawn. Another advantage to the first person narration is that they all remain a bit mysterious, since we can only know what Jane knows about them, but again, that’s part of the fun. Another great thing about Jane is that she’s a (mostly) good judge of character so seeing folks through her eyes is not a disadvantage at all.
Dread Nation leaves the reader with a lot to think about and a lot more to look forward to. Jane and her friends are left in a tenuous situation that simply cries out for a sequel, and although I am thoroughly tired of series, I am happy to have discovered this one. My only regret is that I likely have a year or more to wait to see what happens. Don’t let that put you off, though. You are going to want to get started on this novel as soon as possible, and whatever comes next will be made better for a little (or a lot of ) anticipation.
Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo
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