Dread Nation Analysis
Dread Nation is both an alternate history and a dystopian zombie novel in which past supernatural events created a different American nation: one in which racial inequality is magnified and repression is more pronounced than in the historical 19th century. Justina Ireland creates a scenario which does not invert the outcome of the Civil War with the South winning. Rather, she imagines something far more catastrophic. The Union is restored to wholeness not through combat victories, but instead through a negotiated truce which comes about because the two sides must to join forces against the undead, or "shamblers".
These zombies, who arose first from the Gettysburg graves, have generated even more zombies who terrorize everyone. Even though slavery has technically been rendered illegal, the other underlying social problems that led to the actual Civil War cannot be resolved because everyone must counter this new threat. However, the powers that be preferentially protect white people in their walled cities, forcing black and Native American people to bear the brunt of fighting them off.
Ireland creates an appealing protagonist in Jane McKenna, a teenager whose mother is white and father is African American. Jane has traveled from her Kentucky home on her mother’s plantation to Baltimore to study at the School of Combat; her career will be as an Attendant, a combination fighter and servant. The character who is effectively her sidekick, Katherine, originally is not taken with the intrepid Southerner. While Katherine is also mixed-race, she can pass as white. The juxtaposition of two apparently similar female heroes, showing how each works out their identity issues, raises interesting questions for the reader. A third member of their group is Jack, a friend and former boyfriend of Jane’s, who she must learn to depend on again.
As the book turns into a mystery, the author deftly handles the additional problematic ideas she introduces. Recruited by the police commissioner, these young fighters must travel to Summerland, a besieged but deeply racist town, to search for answers about the residents’ disappearances. Among the new challenges the trio faces is physicians’s illicit experiments as they attempt to discover cures or vaccines to stop the zombies. Conjuring up images of the later Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks cases, Ireland also invites comparison to Gothic novels about the undead like Frankenstein or body snatchers like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.