"It's a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part..."
Dread Nation invites its readers to imagine an alternate history of the United States. During the terrible years of the Civil War the dead began to rise. They feasted upon the living changing them into zombies, or shamblers, as they prefer here. The war was set aside to focus on the more pressing threat. The slaves were set free, but still weren't given much freedom. Young black men and women were sent to special schools to be trained to fight the undead, as they were thought to have special immunities to the virus.
Our main character, Jane, is attending such a school. The goal is to graduate and be hired as an attendant, protecting your white charge from shamblers and suitors alike. Jane is good at killing shamblers, but not so good with etiquette. Her rival, Katherine (Jane calls her Kate to annoy her), is good at both. The girls attend a lecture at a nearby university that ends in chaos and they end up saving the Mayor's wife. Their heroics lead to an invitation to dinner at the Mayor's house.
There have been a lot of suspicious disappearances near the school. One family, the Spencer's, had been caring for Lilly, the sister of Jane's former paramour Jackson (Red Jack). Some late night snooping leads them to the revelation that the Mayor and his Survivalist party had something to do with the disappearances. They use the dinner invitation as a chance to find out the truth. Jane sees a folder for someplace called Summerland...then she gets caught.
As punishment, Jane, Jackson, and poor Katherine are all thrown on a train and sent west. To add insult to injury, Jane's least favorite teacher gives her a bunch of letters from her mother right before putting her on the train. Jane had been writing faithfully and thought she'd never gotten a response. Now she has two goals: get out of Summerland and make her way back to Rose Hill to see if her mother is alive.
It's easier said than done. Summerland was created as a safe haven against the shamblers. It's surrounded by a massive, impenetrable wall. Unfortunately, it's also controlled by an awful sheriff and his even worse preacher father. Black residents must patrol the wall and make sure no shamblers climb it. They get little to no food and useless weapons to perform this job, and the sheriff is quick to hand out brutal punishments to anyone who steps out of line, as Jane finds out firsthand.
The only bright spot is that Jane manages to convince everyone that light-skinned, fair-haired Katherine is white. She hopes that makes up for dragging her into Jane's mess. Katherine also turns out to be the key to defeating the sheriff: he has a crush on her. With the help of the local inventor and a kindly brothel owner, they set a plan in place. What they don't expect is that Summerland isn't as safe as they thought, and the walls can't keep the dead out forever.
In her intro page, Ireland writes:
"Dread Nation is a book about the American Dream. It's about who gets to lay claim to their humanity and who is seen as little more than a tool that is used to achieve the goals of others. It's about loving a place that doesn't love you back, no matter how much you might be willing to bleed and die for it. It's about understanding that, maybe, the things we're told and the things other people believe aren't enough to keep us safe. And that, for some of us, an equal chance was never even an option..."It's sort of funny that a young adult novel about zombies set during the Civil War sounds so topical.