Book Review: ‘Dread Nation’ by Justina Ireland

You have never read a book like Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation.

No, I’m not reaching by saying this. It is absolutely true. I was mildly apprehensive about reading a YA (Young Adult) book involving zombies and a girl fighting them. See, I’m not wildly crazy about zombies in general. It took me six years to finally start watching The Walking Dead. But there is something magical and refreshing about what Justina Ireland has done here, something that the supernatural subgenre of YA fiction has been desperately missing.

For starters, the main character, one Jane McKeene, is a tough-as-nails skilled fighter with a heart of gold. One more thing: she is explicitly a black girl. Now, you might think that isn’t a big deal, but, as a self-proclaimed YA fiend who happened upon the genre at the tender age of twelve, this was everything to me. I hadn’t read a book that I could actually picture myself in.

I must admit that the cover was what intrigued me the most about this book: a black girl in what looked to be some sort of old war regalia standing in front of the American flag. Well, suffice it to say that the history nerd in me was brimming with excitement. The other thing that convinced me to read this was the fact that it was set in post-Civil War America and that it functioned as an alternate history of sorts.

The overall plot of this book is that our dear protagonist, Jane McKeene, is a skilled fighter against the “shamblers”, Ireland’s version of zombies, who rose during the Battle of Gettysburg. In this book, Black and Native American people have been tasked with being the protectors of their white counterparts against these shamblers. In this way, both groups are still being subjugated in a way that allows for little upward social mobility. That being said, Ireland skillfully inserts discussions of the way America has and continues to handle ideas of race.

Dread Nation was a book that I found difficult to put down. There were few slow moments and the ones that were present served only to world-build further and provide more insight into the characters. The pacing of this book was another thing I loved. Things didn’t move too fast or too slow. Everything felt just right and the gravity of different situations felt as real for me as it did for the characters in the book.

With regard to the characters in this book, I absolutely loved that Ireland wrote an America that wasn’t lily white in the aftermath of the Civil War. The collective historical amnesia of America often creates a false narrative that only Black people and white people existed in America at the end of the Civil War when the reality is far from it. There are many characters in this book to love and hate and feel extremely conflicted about. The characters in this book include Black people, white people, Native Americans, and even mention of Chinese immigrants in the west. I am certain that the next book will introduce even more characters who break the mold of what we think we know about America in the Reconstruction Era.

Dread Nation shows that race and the institution of racism itself are, in itself, incredibly hypocritical and complex. What may seem simple and superficial at many times in this book often later presents itself as having more depth and intrigue than you expected. From the characters we see to the plot itself, nothing is what it seems and if you think you’ll be able to predict the way this book will end then you are very wrong.

I really would love to see Dread Nation on the small screen, preferably on Netflix, AMC, or FX as I think it would allow for the most freedom to really bring this book to life. I previously made a fancast with some actors and actresses I believed would really make a tv show or movie adaptation of Dread Nation phenomenal. While there has been no word on whether or not an adaptation is in the works, we can all continue to dream. Personally, I am looking forward to the sequel whenever it may come.

Dread Nation is available for purchase on Amazon, Google Books, Barnes & Noble and other local bookstores.

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