Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First off, before anything else, if you called yourself a feminist and don’t see this cover and go ‘gimme’ you are not a true feminist. Woman, that cover. Whoever designed it – props. Major props and hopefully a large raise.
I first noticed this title last year because of the cover. It popped up on my GR feed. I don’t normally read much in the way of zombie titles –for a variety of reasons – but this looked awesome, though for some reason I thought the main character was going to West Point or something. Needless to say, much anticipated, so a great worry of please don’t be a letdown.
At first blush, Ireland’s book looks like a mash up of Huck Finn with Michonne from the Walking Dead (though the main character Jane uses sickles).
It is and isn’t.
It’s so much more. It’s true that Ireland seems to be drawing quite a bit on Finn, and Jane harkens to him, but Ireland also seems to be drawing on Kate Chopin.
And yet, it is so much more.
Jane is a young woman who is going to a school for girls. This school trains girls to kill shamblers aka zombie. All the girls at the school are black because the government has mandated that all blacks and Native Americans (I’m being polite, Ireland uses the correct term for the 1880s, coming from a white man) be sent to schools to learn how to kill the undead (slavery is supposedly illegal but Jim Crow and Reconstruction exist). In one swoop, Ireland combines residential schools and their abuses with Jim Crow and the use of Army recruitment centers in minority and lower income areas. She also works in medical experiments on minorities.
This isn’t your normal zombie book.
And that’s important because in North America most people disregard the connection between zombies and forced labor, a form of slavery that continues after the slave’s death. That’s the horror. Not the brain eating. It’s true that Cherie Priest set her steampunk zombie series in an alternate Civil War, but her zombies are more connected to drug use. Ireland’s use of zombies during the Civil War and Reconstruction is far more powerful and visceral. The sense of uncomfortable and not right is far stronger than, say, in the Walking Dead. In part this is due to how people use the zombie plague, but also because of the symbolism connected with zombies.
Jane is wonderfully drawn character though she is also the book’s major flaw. There are too many cases and situations where she is the only capable woman or girl. Or the smartest. This is a flaw that is all too common to a great many novels staring kick ass heroines. Unlike some people, Ireland does try to argument. Just when you think Jane is going to be a bit too princess perfect, Ireland seems to realize as well and someone else does something that earns Jane’s admiration. Jane does grow over the course of the novel, and she also is not the girl that everyone lusts after. So, she is almost too perfect, but that almost is important.
That, and Jane is a black woman in a time and place that sees as the lowest of the low. She must constantly downplay her intelligence (the use of reading in this book is absolutely beautiful) and constantly deals with insults. She has a sense of humor, but she is also, rightly, angry and struggling in an unfair, racist system. She grows over the course of the book, and her voice is a real one. Her voice, despite its use of 1800 terms, is also a very real, modern one when dealing with issues like slavery and killing.
There are more than a few scenes with connections to police shooting of unarmed African-Americans.
This book should be taught along with The Hate U Give.
And not because it is the first alternate history book I’ve read that gives us an alternate history Ida B. Wells.
Jane is surrounded by believable characters. I love Kate. I’ve always loved Michelle Sagara West and Kelly Armstrong because they showed women being strong in radically different but equally important ways. I have to add Justine Ireland. Kate is a wonderful character and her story arc is just as powerful as Jane’s. Ireland deserves a reward simply for what Kate says towards the end of the book about relationships. There does seem to be a hint of a standard YA love triangle, but romantic love is not the focus of the book. Jane’s potential beaux include an ex, Red Jack, who makes his way the only way he can, and Gideon who she is attracted to because of his smarts as well as his chest.
How cool is that?
The most powerful part of the story, however, are the parts of letters that head each chapter. For part of the book, the letter is one (or more) from Jane to her mother who lives at Rose Hill. In the last section of the book, the letter is one (or more) from Jane’s mother to Jane. The letters are powerful because of what they must say and what they can’t say, simply because both women know that the letters may be read by a third party. It is though Jane, who is bi-racial and her mother’s back story that Ireland deftly subverts the use of the mulatto, in particular the tragic mulatto, in literature.
In a world that never was, Ireland shows us the world that is and makes the reader confront it.
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