Wow, I didn’t even know about the firestorm over this book and the author and her Twitter use until after I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed Dread Nation. It’s a really terrific novel: what if zombies rose after the Battle of Gettysburg, and American history took a decided turn to deal with this new existential threat? It’s not a sunshine and roses look at the American psyche, tho. If anything, it’s a very realistic look at how the prevailing mindset would still find a way to oppress anyone who wasn’t white “enough”. Slavery might have been abolished, but systemized oppression remains, built into the structures of the new society that has grown to grapple with the threat of shamblers, as the zombies are called. Jane McKeene was born into this society, a biracial daughter of means who is still forced to go to combat school because the law demands that all black children be taken from their parents to learn to fight the shamblers. Good thing Jane is so good at it. If it weren’t for her ornery nature, she’d likely excel at Miss Preston’s School for Combat, whose graduates can look forward to relatively cushy lives as the Attendants (essentially personal bodyguards) of society ladies. Even so, she’s set to graduate near the top of her class, when disaster strikes and Jane soon finds herself fighting for her life against enemies undead or otherwise.
One thing I really enjoyed about this book is that you can tell it was written by an African-American woman. I loved Ben H Winters’ Underground Airlines and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, but the nuance and layers built into Dread Nation’s first person narrative of a young black woman (who also happens to be bisexual!) read with a sharp authenticity that goes beyond the universal emotional wellspring available to all talented writers. It makes for compelling, eye-opening reading, which is one of the many reasons that the #OwnVoices movement is so important. Like Ms Ireland, I don’t believe that people can’t write outside their race/ethnicity/culture but I do believe that it is very, very important that the voices of people writing about their own minority race/ethnicity/culture are promoted so that they have an equal shot at being heard in the contemporary market. I also liked this a whole lot better than Octavia E Butler’s Kindred because it tackles racism and sisterhood without blinders on, and is whip smart about the ongoing corruption and self-deception at the heart of white supremacy.
I also thought that the way the narrative was framed was very clever, with the letter excerpts opening each chapter. I very much want to read the sequel because I like Jane (she reminded me a lot of Tom Sawyer, even before his novel showed up in the narrative — a sly reference I greatly enjoyed) and Katherine, but I admit to being meh on Ms Ireland herself, after her choice of words on Asian-American writers and her refusal to apologize for being a shitty Tweeter. I guess I’m just going to have to put her down as a problematic fave; hopefully, by the time the sequel comes out, she’ll have seen why refusing to apologize for sounding like an asshole to other marginalized communities makes her just as arrogant as the people she criticizes.