Last Updated on June 11, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
Dread Nation is an alternate history horror novel by Justina Ireland. The book tells the story of Jane McKeene, a Black teenager living in Baltimore in the years immediately following the Civil War. In the novel's alternate history timeline, the Civil War has been interrupted by a plague of "shamblers," people who have risen from the dead to hunt human flesh.
Though slavery was outlawed at the close of the war between the states, a government edict conscripts all Black children to enroll in combat schools, where they will be trained to fight shamblers. Jane is training to be an Attendant, a cross between a ladies’ chaperone and combat fighter, employed by wealthy white women to keep them safe. Over the course of the novel, Jane goes from being an Attendant-in-training to a deviant member of the shambler patrol in a corrupt frontier town. Eventually, she seizes command of a small group of townspeople to fight (and defeat) a dangerous horde of incoming shamblers.
For the most part, the novel follows a conventional narrative structure—the timeline moves forward, with occasional flashbacks—but Ireland weaves snippets of letters to and from Jane's mother through the chapters as epigraphs. In the first half of the book, the reader sees only outgoing letters. Jane is writing home, but receiving nothing back. When she learns that her letters have been kept from her, the epigraphs shift to snippets from incoming letters that reveal her mother's fate: she remarried to a man who betrayed her, their estate fell to the shamblers, and she fled to a California frontier town. There is a real-time component to these letters that plays off the timeline of the rest of the novel, bordering on metafiction. When Jane receives the letters Miss Anderson has been keeping from her, she's finally able to fill in some of the blanks in her own knowledge. The reader, suddenly granted a second narrative perspective from another character, shares this experience firsthand.
Throughout the novel, Ireland juxtaposes her fictional narrative against a backdrop of real events and people, often incorporating bits of popular culture to make her alternate history even more recognizable to modern readers. In debates about the cause of the shambler plague, characters invoke the names of real scientists Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur. At one point, Jane reads a copy of Tom Sawyer that includes his altercations with shamblers. By threading well-known elements from history into her narrative, Ireland draws tangible connections between the real world and the world of Jane McKeene. This is intentional: the undead hordes plaguing the novel's leads are fiction, but the backdrop of white supremacy, racism, and America's legacy of inequity are very real. Each recognizable reference is another reminder to her audience that only part of this story is invention.
Ireland draws further connections to modernity through her careful use of language. Her characters generally speak in period-appropriate ways, but Ireland uses phrases that hint at the lexicon of the present day. In one instance, a character assents to Jane by saying "true, that." His comment fits the dialect of his era but also evokes the contemporary, if differently-inflected, phrase "true that." These choices in particular cater to Ireland's intended audience: young adults. Through her use of language, the author strikes a careful balance, incorporating details that ground the modern reader in the story while also laying out the historical context for closer examination.
It's a useful mechanism for this form of storytelling, which incorporates both a good story and a moral imperative—if young adult "fandoms" are known for one thing, it's an obsessive knowledge of all the world-building details that cushion their favorite stories. By making the backdrop of Jane's story the Civil War, American slavery, and this country's very real, lasting legacy of racial intolerance, Ireland encourages her young readers to absorb and contemplate that history with the same close attention.
Readers of Dread Nation are likely to take away a cautionary lesson in bestowing too much trust in the status quo. At every turn, Jane's life and well-being are threatened by those who seek to uphold existing systems of racism and oppression for the sake of preserving their own comfort. Ireland's message is clear: on large and small scales, corrupt institutions are capable of unconscionable cruelty and exploitation—all to benefit those with privilege. Notably, the formal end of slavery in the book did not end the subjugation and exploitation of its characters of color, just as the formal end of slavery in the real world has not kept systemic racism from continuing to target and punish people of color in the years since.
In the afterword, Ireland notes that her inspiration for Miss Preston's Combat School for Negro Girls comes from real-life historic precedent. Though the United States has never conscripted individuals to fight an undead uprising, "industrial schools"—forced education for Indigenous children, designed to eradicate their culture and force assimilation in the second half of the nineteenth century—provided a troubling real-life model for her work. If white Americans could do such a thing in a time of peace, Ireland seems to ask, what would they do in a time of desperation? Ireland’s answer to this question is undoubtedly bleak, but in staging this fantastical horror story within a historical context, she invites readers to confront the real-life horrors of America’s past and consider how this past continues to shape our society today.