Another surprising read I didn’t expect to enjoy.
I’d given up on YA books because I became annoyed that they were mostly romance novels touted as other genres. Whether they are categorized as fantasy or horror or sci-fi, the main focus of the story is always the romance and often it is the weakest part of the story. Because of that, I stopped reading YA books for a while. But the few rave reviews I’ve seen of Dread Nation, as well as this article, got me curious and made me want to read the book. So I did.
Historical fiction — alternative history; Horror (it’s not scary)
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. (Goodreads)
“Historical fiction is about the present.” — Sarah Perry (author of The Essex Serpent)
Though Dread Nation is a historical fiction novel, it’s as much about our present as it is about the past. I enjoyed reading it for several reasons but the main one is the protagonist, Jane, who’s plucky and spunky and uses her wits and badass fighting skills to survive and save her friends. The story is told in first-person from her perspective, which made it an entertaining read. Jane is sarcastic and, to me, she has very modern sensibilities for the period the story is set in. It makes her character stand out and makes her easy to relate to and quickly appeal to the reader. At times, I thought she’s a bit anachronistic because her personality seems to fit the modern day more than the past she’s stuck in.
But because of her awareness of the societal strictures she’s forced to adhere to and the blatant prejudice and racism and general unfairness toward Negros she’s cognizant of, we are able to recognize the true horror of this alternate past and realize that it’s not much different from our present in terms of how Black people are regarded and treated. Through Jane, the author not only comments upon conditions of the past but also illuminates where we need to do better in our present.
The story not only touches on racial divide but also tackles how belief systems can trap individuals in a systemic way of thinking that may cause society to regress instead of progress. In the story, Whites in power at a town called Summerland believe so strongly that Negroes are inferior to Whites that they do not realize that such thinking holds them back and prevents them from building a strong and sustainable town.
I think it was obvious what would become of the town and its leaders. Much as I enjoyed the plot and main character, I thought the antagonists could have used a bit more development. They seemed too simplistic in some areas and almost one-dimensional. It’s the same with some supporting characters, especially Jane’s frenemy Katherine. At the beginning, I feared that Katherine would not gain much development and would only serve to highlight Jane’s strengths. Though Katherine’s character improves as the story progresses, it wasn’t by much and what I feared is exactly what became of her character.
However, I like Katherine’s function later in the story and that her character, and another that I can’t mention because it would be a major spoiler, is used to refer to act of “passing,” where Blacks who are light enough undermined strictures of prejudice by “passing” as Whites. There’s a lot of psychological and sociological complexities that accompany such actions, but when people do so, it shows how silly and petty it is to persecute a group of people because of their skin color and ancestry.
As I read, I got the impression that this was a story Ireland needed to write and that much of its content are things she needed to get out, share, and discuss in her story. Through Jane, I could feel her frustration and aggravation at how Blacks have been and are treated. But despite such strong feelings and heavy topics, the story doesn’t drag and does not emotionally burden the reader. Instead Jane’s can-do attitude and quick wit makes the story entertaining, fun, and a quick read.
And though it contains horrible, disgusting zombies attacking and eating people, more time is spent getting to know the characters and understanding the social structures of the world. I enjoyed reading the fight scenes with the zombies and the last major fight scene toward the end where the zombies are waiting in the dark really creeped me out because the worst zombie apocalypse situation to be in is one where there are smart zombies.
I love zombie stories and what I love the most about such stories is how the zombies are used — what their function is. In Dread Nation, the presence of zombies makes the story a horror, but they aren’t what’s horrific. Instead the zombies serve as a foil to the Whites in power who use their influence to continue the persecution of Negroes and promote the inferiority of Negroes to Whites. It’s easy to see that they are the true monsters.
Dread Nation was quick and fun with some humor sprinkled throughout. I began the story in doubt that I’d like it and completed it as a fan of the protagonist and eagerly waiting for the next book to be published.
Overall: ★★★★☆ 1/2
It was great. I was entertained and enjoyed it and liked all that’s packed in it.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I enjoyed and actually like the story, but I’m all about saving this year hence the Borrow.
I have a Twitter account that I mostly use to post links to interesting articles and hardly ever engage in or follow conversations there so I totally missed the discussion about the representation of Native Americans in Dread Nation.
That flew right past me while I read, but I did think it odd that Mr. Redfern is the only Native American we meet in the story despite the mention of the Negro and Native American Reeducation Act and all. I assumed that we would learn more about Redfern and possibly meet more Native Americans in the next book, but I do wish he’d received more character development in this one.
However, it seems that representation of Native Americans was lacking in more than just this area in the story. If interested, see this Twitter discussion about representation of Native Americans in Dread Nation.