“And I suppose I might have grown up better, might have become a proper house girl or even taken Aunt Aggie’s place as House Negro. I might have been a good girl if it had been in the cards. But all of that was dashed to hell two days after I was born, when the dead rose up and started to walk on a battlefield in a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.”
Civil war era United States? Zombies? Schools with the sole purpose of training Black people and Native Americans to kill zombies? Sharp-tongued and quick-witted young women who certainly don’t need a man to rescue them? When I read the premise of Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation (Balzer + Bray, 2018) I was hooked. Rise up indeed.
Jane McKeene is at the top of her class at the prestigious Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. She’s mastered weaponry (except for firearms), but she’s having some difficulty with etiquette – unlike the stunning Katherine Deveraux, who is light enough to pass as white and can wield her weapons (including firearms) while wearing a corset. Beautiful, delicate and dangerous, everyone thinks Katherine won’t have any issues being selected to serve as an Attendant for some wealthy white family. Jane loathes her.
Jane prefers folks, including Katherine, under-estimating her. She is well-read but lets most think she’s illiterate because that’s what they expect of her. She utilizes code switching, adopting a simple-minded and uneducated way of speaking among certain white folks because she knows from experience an educated black girl will set them on edge. It’s effective for the plot, but not executed consistently. (The inconsistencies are far more apparent in the sequel, however.)
Jane isn’t keen on following rules and she often sneaks out at night, killing shamblers and protecting travelers. Her exploits have earned her the moniker Angel of the Crossroads, and her reputation has reached those in high places. Despite excelling at killing, she’s far too stubborn and insubordinate to make a good Attendant. When she stumbles upon the mayor’s dark secret and threatens to unravel the political lie that is holding Baltimore together, she is sent to a new settlement and forced to protect the wealthy parts of the fledging town. After the wives of the affluent men see Katherine, they determine she is far too pretty to serve as an Attendant and she is sent along with Jane to Summerland where the two must learn to not only work together, but to trust each other.
The relationship between Jane and Katherine, the enemies to friends plotline that carries both novels, is at times infuriating, but largely endearing and easily my favorite aspect of Dread Nation. The treatment of race and colorism, the code-switching, the historical truths of scientists and doctors experimenting on Black people as well as the “forced education” of Native American youth make this novel a bit more than just your average zombie story.
I do not recommend the sequel, which I will review separately, but I certainly recommend Dread Nation.
Read this book.