When it comes to not judging a book by its cover, I’m generally pretty good. So when Balzer + Bray released the cover of Justina Ireland’s novel Dread Nation last June, I was glad there’s no rule about having RIDICULOUSLY HIGH EXPECTATIONS based on a cover. With its gorgeous young model, confidently posed by an American flag with a bloody scythe in her hand, and a tagline seemingly referencing Hamilton below the title (Rise up!), I was completely sold before I even read the outline. To say that this was my most anticipated book of 2018 would not be a stretch.
The book I was actually presented with a year later did not meet those expectations. It sailed clean over them—more often than not in ways I never expected. What I thought I was getting, based on the cover and the outline, was a cool, action-packed book about a brave girl fighting zombies. What I actually got was much better: a thought-provoking, nuanced, gory, and thrilling novel that stayed with me long after I put it down.
Dread Nation is a re-imagined history of post-Civil War America, in which the ghosts of this bloody and personal conflict are literal as well as metaphorical: following the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead got up and started walking again. It’s a clever stage on which to mount the zombie apocalypse, which indeed, as the novel progresses, begins to feel only incidental to the story. The real evil, we discover, is much more sinister and cunning, as well as more familiar: politicians and leaders who cling to a dream of prewar America, an America that, incidentally, no longer exists. These leaders build walls around their cities, ostensibly to make them safe; they exploit people’s fear of zombies (“shamblers,” the novel calls them) to push forth their own racist agendas; they wish to create “a new America, one that embraces the promise of greatness.” This type of evil is all too recognizable, and—perhaps most frighteningly—does not require a zombie apocalypse to thrive.
It is in this unstable and terrifying world that we meet our protagonist, Jane McKeene, the daughter of a white plantation owner’s wife and an unknown black field hand. Initially, Jane presents as a perfect, if typical, YA action heroine: she trains at a special combat school for black girls, where she is among the top students in her class; she has a rivalry with an uppity classmate and a complicated romance with a charming petty criminal. Her thoughts are frequently of her mother back home, and her predestined future—as personal guard to a high-society lady, in a “safe” city with minimal threat of actual shambler attack—frustrates her. It’s a story that feels familiar, and in a different sort of novel, Jane’s journey would be just as formulaic: beating her rival, winning her love interest, and being lauded far and wide for her heroics.
Slowly, however, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this society is designed to prevent Jane’s story from being that simple. The combat school, we discover, is part of something called the Negro and Native Reeducation Act: these “second-class citizens” are considered more expendable for the protection of the country, and are forcibly put in such institutions from the time they are twelve. Another character in the book, who at eleven years old is on the brink of conscription, is strategically moved around in order to prevent her from such a fate. Following their training, these teenagers may become Attendents, which are glorified ladies’ maids with combat knowledge, or sent away to communities like Summerland—a walled community on the prairie where slavery is only technically illegal. Jane may be one of the best in her class, but she’s there against her will, and wants above all to return to her beloved home and her mother. It’s a horrifying, no-win situation, as well as a scathing commentary on the evolving nature of slavery in America, no more evident than in this exchange between Jane and a fellow indentured fighter:
“Slavery is illegal,” I say.
“Not necessarily. They got loopholes in that there Thirteenth Amendment. . . lots of different ways to pretty up the same old evils.”
Jane as a YA heroine is a perfect balance of subverting tropes and celebrating them. She’s smart to the point of cold calculation at times, and knows how to play the system, yet she’s free with risk-taking as well. She’s completely bad ass in combat, stepping into natural leadership in the most awesome battle sequence ever, but the text emphasizes that she’s no “chosen one”: she’s making the best of a terrible situation same as anyone else. And while she’s shown to have compassion, particularly towards younger people, her attitude toward her enemies is ruthless to the point of other characters worrying there’s something wrong with her. Her relationships with these other characters are a strong point of the novel as well: her complicated but intensely loving relationship with her mentally unstable mother; her irritation-turned-tolerance-turned-genuine affection for her rival Katherine; her uneasy and maybe-romantic alliance with dangerous element Red Jack. Most importantly, she’s fiercely, fully aware of herself in a world that sees her as little more than cannon fodder—and refuses to conform to its expectations of her.
“Be patient, that lawman will get his just desserts.”
His lips twist, filled with malice. “I ain’t yet seen the man who can do that.”
“Maybe that’s your problem. You been waiting for a man.”