Bravo! I did not see that coming.
I am a sucker for zombie books, so when I heard about Dread Nation, I was all over it. This is set in an alternate America, when the dead started walking – and eating the living – during Gettysburg. That kind of put the brakes on the strife between the States, and they settled the Civil War to band together and fight the dead. Jane, the protagonist, was born just before the dead rose up, and she hasn’t known any other life than one that involves fighting the undead.
Jane is an interesting character. Her mother is white, and she is black. The midwife assisting in her birth tried to kill her, and no one would have blamed her if she had. Jane’s mother is the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky, and the fact that she gave birth to a Negro is scandalous beyond belief. Auntie Aggie saves her, and Jane’s life is never going to be normal after that.
While not advertising that Jane is her daughter, her mother keeps her close at hand, and she even hides her when they round up the Negro children and send them off to combat schools to learn to fight the dead. Jane ends up at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore anyway, where she is training to be an Attendant. Once they graduate, the students are hired by rich white women to protect them from the undead. While Jane is terrible at etiquette, she excels at combat, and she’s training hard so she can return home to Rose Hill and help defend it from the zombies. She doesn’t count on getting caught up in a conspiracy by the Mayor of Baltimore and being sent out to the god-forsaken wilderness of Kansas, where she is expected to help defend Summerland against the endless swarms of the undead.
I really enjoyed Dread Nation. Jane is a young woman without agency. She is oppressed by the whites who yearn for a return to the old ways, and who believe the undead are a punishment from God for ending slavery and unsettling the natural order of things. Jane, despite being constantly robbed of her own life choices, battles for her own agency through her wits and her own stubborn will. She refuses to allow her oppressors to hold her down, and she constantly outwits their attempts to keep her subjugated.
I hated most of the adults in this book. They are mostly evil, opportunist monsters who take advantage of children. I was waiting eagerly for their comeuppance, whether at the hand of our heroine or at the hands of the undead. I wasn’t disappointed. Hooray!
I did not see the big revelation at the end coming, and now I am kicking myself for missing all of the clues that lead up to it. Bravo for that.
While this is the first book in a trilogy, it left off in a good spot. I’m not dying at the thought of waiting a year to catch up with Jane and her friends, but I definitely know that there are many more harrowing adventures left for them. Dread Nation gave me a new perspective on life for a marginalized young woman who isn’t willing to settle for the place society has deemed she fits into, while providing plenty of entertaining zombie action as well.
Grade: 4.25 stars