Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Zombies permeate modern pop-culture. They have for a while. Since my salad days in college with the re-make of "Dawn of the Dead" and "28 Days Later" then "28 Weeks Later", and books like World War Z. Those works ushered in the seemingly endless "The Walking Dead" television series later accompanied by "Fear the Walking Dead", and so on and so on.
However when it comes to the category of Young Adult literature, there isn't much zombie fare to choose from. This isn't a bad thing, for I sincerely believe no other author could use the zombie archetype as effectively and flawlessly as Justina Ireland has. 

Dread Nation is a significant achievement. 
Some people might ask, "Why zombies?"
I have no idea regarding Ms. Ireland's personal motives for incorporating zombies in this gruesome, fast-paced, emotional saga, but I have a guess...

Zombies are often used as code for a hivemind devoid of any critical thinking.
George Romero used them as commentary on capitalism and consumer culture.
Stephen King used them similarly to highlight our society's dependence on modern technology (specifically mobile phones.) 
But Justina Ireland has gone a step further, and accomplished something breathtaking.

Dread Nation is an alternate history that takes place during the Civil War. Only this time, at the battle of Gettysburg, the dead rise and zombies make their first appearance in the world. 
The protagonist, Jane, is a biracial girl born shortly after the zombie uprising, and is sent to a combat school where minorities learn how to kill and fight the undead on behalf of white people. Through a series of mishaps and Jane's unyielding determination, she and her cohorts are sent to the great plains West of the Mississippi. This is the opposite of Jane's ultimate goal, which is reuniting with her mother and returning home. 

"Why zombies?" "Why the Civil War?" 
Ms. Ireland uses zombies to illustrate not consumerism, or over-reliance on technology...but racism. 
The zombies first appearing in the the battle that (in real life) turned the tide of the Civil war, not to mention involved the largest number of casualties is not a coincidence. The Civil war was about slavery, it was a war about the right to own another person and treat them as property. 
I perceive the zombies of Dread Nation as symbolizing ideas from the past that are thought to be - and should remain - dead. But they aren't are they? Those ideals and beliefs have been lurking in the dark corners of American consciousness for a while...shambling about hoping to happen upon the ignorant, unaware, or unprepared at the opportune moment.
The parallels drawn to American society today will not be lost on the conscious reader. We are heavily divided as a nation thanks to the events of very recent history, and there are those that are clinging to ideals and beliefs that are best left dead. There are those who blindly follow without thinking for themselves; they become tools and puppets, and unspeakably dangerous for those of us who do not look or live like they think we should.

Not only does Dread Nation tackle those weighty subjects, but Ms. Ireland also deftly handles passing privilege in the African American community. She briefly highlights the plight of Native Americans. There is even positive, asexual representation by a strong supporting character. 

Dread Nation does what all great fantasies do; it becomes a lens into the world just outside your window right now while showing you an entirely different time and place. It is the epitome artistic resistance. I daresay that it is the book of the resistance - YA historical fantasy edition.
This is a book that should be dissected in every book club, every reader-circle, and I'll go so far as to say it should be on some school reading lists. 
There's too much to unpack in a single, spoiler-free review, but suffice it to say that should you explore the alternate America envisioned by Justina Ireland you will walk away with a fresh perspective on a variety of topics - and you'll have a bloody good time in the process.

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