Justina Ireland’s Post-Reconstruction teenage zombie fighter has moved me like no other literary character has since Heidi. Yes, I said Heidi.
Sometimes a literary character comes along just when you need her. At this time in my life that character is Jane McKeene, a zombie fighting teenager during the alternative Post-Reconstruction Era envisioned by Justina Irelandin her novel Dread Nation. I am having a hard time thinking of a character who has moved me this much since I read Heidi thirty-seven times between first and second grade.
Yes, I mean that. Heidi.
I am a fifty-six year old white woman, and like many people my age, I grew up reading Dick and Jane in public school. Jane was a useless creature who dissolved into tears when she did things like drop a sack of flour on the floor only to be rescued by her brother, Dick, who would help her sweep it up. She and her sister Sally would generally stand by and say, “Oh Oh,” and “Go Go,” while Dick and the dog had adventures.
I enjoyed sounding out the words in the Dick and Jane primers, but my eye was drawn one day to a book on my first-grade classroom shelf that had on its cover a little girl wearing a scarf over her curly black hair having a good time with a goat. I started to sound out the words, because well, she looked like she was having a more interesting life than Dick and Jane were.
A whole new world opened up. Heidi was an orphan who had real problems. And she stood up to the adults who tried to bully her, responded with love to those who reached out to her and in general, I think, she set me on the path of loving stories with humor and pathos, stories that promoted the idea that the lives of ordinary working people — people tending goats up on the mountain — were just as interesting as those of the upper classes.
Of course in first and second grade, I wasn’t thinking all that, I was gaining new vocabulary by re-reading Heidi. But it’s also true I wasn’t yearning to be a princess. I was yearning to frolic with goats in the mountains and to stand up to the adults and peers who were pushing me around.
Now, I was predisposed to like Dread Nation. Justina Ireland was a lecturer in a Madcap cross-cultural writing seminar I attended more than a year ago. I also come from a family of history professors, so I care about the way our U.S. narrative has recast the Civil War into a conflict over states rights instead of slavery and turned “Reconstruction” into a bad word. I care about the way the Confederacy has rehabilitated itself into something called “heritage.”
But when I actually met Jane McKeene, I was not prepared to fall in love so thoroughly. Like other black girls her age in the book, she is sent to a combat school to be an attendant — a servant whose primary function is protecting refined white people from shamblers. That’s what the undead are called in Dread Nation. They first rose from the battlefields of Gettysburg and are rapidly laying waste to the cities of the east. She chafes at the rules of decorum she must learn in addition to fighting skills at the elite Miss Preston’s boarding school — and basically “knowing her place” is always the wrong answer for her when she questions why she must abide by these restrictions. Like Heidi, she stands up to the adults who try to bully her, including adults with quite a bit of power over her, and she is not afraid of speaking the truth to them. Given her handiness with sickles and repartee, she has a little bit of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe about her, if Buffy were less popular and put a lot less stake (pardon the pun) in being popular.
I won’t go too much into the plot, which kept me riveted, but if you’re at all into Civil War geekery, Ireland proves herself knowledgeable in 19thcentury racial theory, on how the Southern aristocracy was able to subvert Emancipation and Reconstruction, and the importance of Kansas in the struggle between slaveholders and Freestaters.
And then she must have said, “And how would that have all changed if I added zombies?” (A deeper reflection on the zombie motif and slavery is available in a Vulture interview with Justina Ireland here.)
For those of my readers who are Mennonites and pacifists, be warned: Jane is not. But seriously, if you like The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia series, I think it’s hypocritical to come down hard on Jane for defending herself not only against Zombies but a couple exceedingly vicious men who do not view her as human.
I know that Dread Nation is going to touch chords in young black people that are missing in me, but I hope that the Literary Domination system gives it the promotion it deserves and does not relegate to some quota of ethnic novels they feel obliged to produce. (Although as young adult author Kosoko Jackson pointed out this era may be coming to a close.)
Dread Nation is
· For every young person who has wanted to stand up to her bullies
· For every girl not satisfied with sidekick status in an adventure/quest story
· For young people looking for the confidence to change history
· I guess for kids that are into zombies, too.