Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. Balzer + Bray, 2018, 451 pages.
Not long after the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising from the field, putting the American Civil War on pause. Several years later, Jane McKeene finds herself at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, training with her classmates in the art of killing “shamblers.” This is world that Justina Ireland has created in her exciting novel Dread Nation.
Jane McKeene is the protagonist of Dread Nation, an African-American girl whose mother is the head of Rose Hill plantation in Kentucky. She is sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat as part of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which created schools to train African-American and Native American students to kill the shamblers to protect the white citizens in their towns. Jane frequently finds herself in trouble, as she has a quick wit and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is also unconcerned about being a proper lady, unlike her classmate Katherine, with whom she strikes up an uneasy friendship. Jane is nearing graduation from Miss Preston’s School and is eager to return to Rose Hill to see her mother, whom she frequently writes to with no response.
One night, Jane and some other girls from Miss Preston’s attend a lecture given by a Professor Ghering, who claims to have created a vaccine that will prevent people from turning into shamblers. Using his assistant Othello, it soon becomes clear that the vaccine is ineffective, and the lecture descends into chaos, with Jane and Katherine saving the community from more attendees becoming shamblers. This attracts the attention of the mayor, and through a series of shady circumstances, Jane and Katherine are sent to Kansas to a new settlement called Summerland.
Summerland sets itself up to be a prototype for all new American cities. There is a large wall that is patrolled in case of shamblers, electricity illuminates buildings, and there are horses, unlike the eastern cities, where all of the horses were killed by shamblers. For all its niceties, it soon becomes clear that Summerland is rotten at the core. Controlled by a ruthless sheriff and a preacher with a twisted view on biblical interpretation, it becomes clear that Jane and Katherine must leave Summerland as soon as possible. They find kindness in the madam Duchess and the tinkerer Gideon, but it often seems that the odds are no longer in the favor.
Dread Nation is an exciting adventure novel that also offers keen cultural criticism. Jane is an excellent protagonist. She is smart, resourceful, quick-witted, but also impulsive. She recognizes her flaws and tries to act as expected, but she is unwillingly to follow the rules just to follow the rules. Through Jane’s keen insights, Justina Ireland highlights social issues that are still present today. The supporting cast of characters are all well drawn, and the reader will cheer for their success. Dread Nation is the first book in a planned series, but the story is satisfying on its own and is an excellent read.
Elizabeth Weislak is the Youth Services Coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org