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Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION--Historical Fiction with a Twist

by Sara Voigt (@meaningfulmadness)

Welp, this book is definitely a bit out of my wheelhouse. Justina Ireland's book Dread Nation is a young-adult, historical fiction novel with a (BIG) twist set right after the Gettysburg battle in the American Civil War. During the Gettysburg battle, something remarkable happens, and the fallen soldiers rise up from their deaths to become the undead (called shamblers in the book and are akin to zombies). The shamblers are able to infect other humans with their bites.

Enter Native and Negro Reeducation Act, an act that requires black and indigenous children and teens to attend combat schools to become attendants to guard the wealthy from shambler attacks and to "put down" shamblers. The protagonist is Jane McKeene, a spitfire teenager, who attends Mrs. Preston's School of Combat, one of the schools created under the Native and Negro Reeducation Act.

This exposition provides the framework for an interesting story that examines and comments on current events as well as the events of the past. My favorite part of the book is Jane. She is strong, fierce, and unapologetic about her actions. I most appreciate the attention the author pays to let the reader know that while Jane is fighting for the "good" side, she also is not this perfect and "all good" iteration of a female lead character. She is human and therefore makes decisions that could be viewed as self-serving (don't we all!) and rash. She is dynamic and nuanced and fantastic. In addition, another part of the book that I really liked is the relationships that are represented between the female characters: Jane's relationship with her mom, shown in unanswered letters Jane sends to her mother; Jane's relationship with the Duchess, a brothel madam who helps Jane learn the ways of Summerland, a community Jane is shipped to soon after the book begins; and Jane's relationship with Katherine, a fellow attendant who is shipped to Summerland with Jane. All of these relationships are well developed and were integral to my overall enjoyment of this young-adult read.

What didn't work for me is the shambler/zombie component. At times, it felt distracting to the narrative and the overall message of the book. However, for me, I am not normally here for a zombie book--not my favorite. So, personal preference plays a part here.

I think this is an excellent read for teenagers and upper middle school. There is some violence and descriptions of the violence (having to deal with killing the shamblers), but overall I think most teenagers could handle it.

Side Note: Dread Nation was Unabridged Podcast's Book Club pick for January 2019. You can check out our episode wherever you listen to your podcasts, or directly on our website at this link.

Bottom Line: 3/5, I liked it, but enjoyed other young-adult books that accomplish similar things better. However, I think this would be a great choice for students.


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