Balzer + Bray
April 03, 2018
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Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
I love alternate history stories . . . butt I get a bit nervous when the thing they make 'alternate' about history is something we can all (or should all) agree was something good/positive/that needed to happen.
In Jane's America, slavery has ended but things are far from equal. The dead have risen, putting a stop to the War Between the Sates and leaving everyone with a whole new danger, a new enemy. TO keep people safe the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, declares that Jane (and other African American and Native American children) will be trained to kill the dead. To protect white people. As is their place.
Here is the thing about a novel where character think that way (you know, that racial superiority is a thing and that it makes sense): It is a brilliant way of demonstrating the fallacy of that precise way of thinking. It is easy to see the wrongs when a story is set during the time of slavery in the Untied States, but the injustices can be less obvious when set afterwards.
In Dread Nation author Justina Ireland gives readers a time when slavery was gone, but the dichotomy of how whites and blacks (and 'Natives') is nearly as profound. Without technical slavery there as a backdrop, we are able to see (and hear) more of how the characters think, how they justify the inequality (and wow is a lot of it not only horrible, but also out there - which is worse because it wasn't out there to them).
That's not to say, though, that Dread Nation is only about the societal structure of Jane's America and full of sociopolitical lessons on race and equality. (There's also bits about gender, as well.) It is a fresh and unique sort of historical fiction, zombie book. Much as the 'why' was bad, the idea of the combat schools was pretty awesome. I like that these people were so sure that they were 'superior' that their plan involved training the 'inferior' people in combat. Yeah.
I really loved how thoroughly different, yet still very similar and recognizable this alternate America was to what happened.
The characters are very well written. There are some that you really, really want to get shot or bitten or something, and others that you want to help defend (whether or not they need it). I appreciated how the relationships developed during the book and how we learned more about the characters and their history.
Knowing what I do now of how and where things are in Jane's time and of her past, and being truly invested in the characters, their stories, and their relationships, I very much want to read Book 2 and find out what happens. And how close - or how very far - things may get to real history.