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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dread Nation is an alternative-history zombie thriller that takes place after the U.S. Civil War ends -- not with the South's surrender, but when the dead begin to rise up on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. Author Justina Ireland explores what would've happened had zombies (or shamblers, as they're called in the book) stopped the war in order for Americans to come together to battle the undead (or force black and indigenous folks to fight them). Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book features a good deal of violence, as is appropriate in a story about zombie slayers (lots of deaths either from the undead eating live humans, or from humans shooting, stabbing, decapitating the undead, or from people beating, stabbing, and shooting one another). There are also some racial slurs of the era ("darkie," "colored," "pickaninny," "coon," etc.) in the story. Parents and teens who read the book together can discuss a host of sociopolitical and historical issues, from institutional racism and white supremacy to shadism, passing, educational segregation, well-intentioned but ineffective white benevolence, and more.
What's the story?
DREAD NATION is a historical zombie thriller that takes place in an alternative universe in which the Civil War ended when the dead at Gettysburg began to rise up and consume soldiers from both armies. Protagonist Jane McKeene was born just two days before zombies -- aka shamblers -- emerged, and the fact that she's obviously biracial has complicated life for her rich, white mother, the mistress of a powerful Kentucky plantation. In an effort to help fight the undead, the government enacts the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which forces black and indigenous children to attend combat school, where they're basically taught to be zombie slayers to protect whites. Jane is nearly done with her training at a prestigious Baltimore combat school to become an Attendant (a bodyguard to wealthy whites), when she and her beautiful light-skinned classmate Katherine are taken away to serve as border patrol at a dangerous frontier outpost, Summerland. At Summerland, which is led by a racist religious fanatic and his lawman son, Jane manages to convince everyone that blue-eyed, golden-haired Katherine is white, and that she's the lady's Attendant. After Jane succeeds in installing Katherine among the white citizens, the two young women uncover a host of dangerous secrets -- about the town, the undead, and the future.
Is it any good?
The action is so compelling in this fantastic alt-history zombie thriller that re-imagines post-Civil War America, it's the kind of novel that's difficult to stop reading once you start. Dread Nation's main character, Jane, is everything you want in a protagonist: courageous, clever, funny, willful, and impulsive, but also vulnerable, generous, and selfless. She doesn't bother with humility -- she knows the damage she can do with her sickles and that table manners and upper-crust etiquette are trifling considerations. And although there's a tiny love triangle with two viable suitors, the romance is way on the back burner while Jane (who's biracial but not fair enough to pass) and her perfectly put-together classmate Katherine (who is described as having a passing-for-white complexion, blue eyes, and golden hair) work together to defeat the nefarious plans of Summerland's vile father-and-son preacher and sheriff. Katherine enjoys the finer things but also resents how her beauty is also a burden and that she's underestimated (even by Jane, once in a while) because of her face.
Jane and Katherine lead the charge, while the men in the story are all supporting characters, whether they're good, evil, or roguish. Red Jack, Jane's former beau, is desperate to find his little sister (who, like Katherine, can "pass"); Gideon is the genius forced to keep Summerland's electricity flowing; and Summerland's reigning father and son believe in the despicable white supremacy that keeps the frontier town's black Attendants in place. In flashbacks, readers will also get to know Jane's white, plantation-running Momma, as well as the various black aunties, particularly Aggie, who raised Jane at Rose Hill. There's also a layered quality to the story: Readers can enjoy it for the surface layer of zombie slaying or dig in further to uncover the sociopolitical and historical commentary. Readers of color may especially connect to the themes of oppression and systemic racism.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about gender roles in Dread Nation. How are the young combat-trained women just as capable as the men?
What role does violence play in Dread Nation? Is it realistic? Why is violence important to the story?
Despite the supernatural elements of the story, what aspects are rooted in historical events and truths, such as Indian boarding schools, "passing," segregation, and more? Why is it believable that had zombies appeared in 19th-century America, black and brown people would've been forced to protect whites?
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