Justina Ireland’s 2018 Dread Nation is a zombie apocalypse novel.
The American Civil War ground to a halt as soon as the dead began clambering from their graves. The cost of Grant’s march south against the undead was the South’s surrender and the freeing of the slaves. People once born in chains are now free.
There is, of course, one small catch, which is that entrenched white supremacy didn’t vanish when legal slavery did. As a consequence…
Black Americans are for white Americans an invaluable resource, sturdy second-class citizens who are asked to do frontline duty against the wandering zombie hordes. Why risk valuable white people when black people can protect their betters? Thus, the Native and Negro Education Act.
Jane McKeene is an Attendant-in-training at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, a black woman whose socially mandated career path is to become a well-mannered bodyguard for rich white women. Jane is not much interested in learning proper place settings or risking her skill for some empty-headed debutante. She will see her schooling out, then do her best to return home to Kentucky.
Jackson “Red Jack” Keats derails this nice little plan. Jane’s ex-beau’s sister Lily has vanished, along with the white family with whom the light-skinned girl was staying. Jane makes the mistake of agreeing to help find out what happened to the missing girl.
Jane is a good enough snoop to quickly discover that the Mayor of Baltimore is somehow involved in the disappearance. She isn’t good enough to avoid getting caught in the process. In short order she is secretly detained, stripped of her weapons, and sent with Red Jack and frenemy Katherine off to a destination from which the Mayor is quite certain none of them will return.
Far out west, Summerland is intended to be a shining city on a hill, where white people can live comfortably protected from the undead hordes. Black people have their place too: risking their lives working for the rich elite. Aware that their servants could be as great a threat as the zombies should they ever rise, the people who run Summerland have taken the precaution of denying their slaves-in-all-but name anything but rudimentary weapons. This means a high death toll for people like Jane. This is a sacrifice Summerland is willing to make.
Jane doesn’t plan to wait around until something kills her.
There is an odd bit at the end of this novel in which the author explains that Native American children were forcibly taken from their families to be educated in residential schools. This suggests to me that this sad fact is not widely known to American readers. I take it there has been no American analog to Canada’s meaningless reconciliation theatre.
I doubt that, in this setting, humanity will survive anywhere where it doesn’t freeze in winter (zombies go quiet when temperatures fall).
Discerning readers will notice early in the novel that the schemes for dealing with the zombies are unlikely to work. This isn’t because the author has bought into dubious world views. It’s because the people running things in her world are vicious idiots. Their supposed remedies (ineffective vaccines, forcing the lower classes into high-risk jobs) won’t work. They are deluding themselves about their long-term prospects because accepting the truth would be too upsetting.
It might seem a bit far-fetched to imagine that an America faced with a calamitous epidemic might turn to self-serving poltroons for leadership or that white Americans might regard their black fellow citizens as lesser people who would nevertheless be useful because they were (supposedly) more resistant to contagion. Nevertheless, Ireland does a nice job of selling the idea.
The book is a well-paced page-turner. It starts at a moment when tensions are already high, then steadily increases the stakes while stripping the lead of resources. Jane is an engaging character and I cared what happened to her and her friends. I’d not read anything by Ireland before this but I’m going to be looking for the sequel to Dread , Deathless Divide.