For Justina Ireland, the dark history of the American Civil War and the fantastical concept of zombies aren’t nearly as far apart as most people think.
“My brain works in concentric circles, and I always think of zombies as leading to upheaval and change, as signaling the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” Ireland says. “And the Civil War did the same thing historically—derailed everything. The only difference is that you’re defending yourself from your neighbor rather than a ravaging horde.”
Ireland is speaking from her home in York, Pennsylvania, about an hour from both Gettysburg and the city of Baltimore, where her third novel, an artful blend of alternate history and horror titled Dread Nation, takes place. The Battle of Gettysburg, which resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire Civil War, “seemed like the perfect terrible moment for things to get even worse,” says Ireland. “War is horrible enough because you’ve just lost someone, but there’s a whole new level of trauma when your dead friend is trying to eat your face.”
When Dread Nation opens, we meet the smart, fiery, impulsive Jane McKeene, who’s been training for years at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Jane was born the same week that the zombies—known as “shamblers”—first rose from their graves. Since Jane is biracial, she was sent to combat school as required by the Native and Negro Reeducation Act—in order to “groom the savage” out of her. Though she’s one of the top students, Jane isn’t content to become a bodyguard for the daughter of a rich, white family.
When Jane and her rival—the demure, rational, beautiful Katherine—are invited to the mayor’s house as a reward for their lifesaving zombie-combat heroics, they soon discover that the zombies aren’t the only evils they’ll have to face down, nor are they the most sinister.
“A good zombie story is never really about the zombies,” Ireland says, and while dealing with various hindrances, her characters develop a “consciousness of knowing that they live in a country that doesn’t necessarily value them the same way it values other people.” Throughout Dread Nation, the author incisively and repeatedly broaches racism, classism, sexism and religion as tools for social control, as well as the politicization of zombies and the use of pseudoscience to try to justify it all. “I’ve always found it interesting how people can do both good work and terrible work with the same passages of the Bible. And these are still things we do today—we still use religion and science to push our own prejudices and beliefs, to wield ideologies that promote our own personal agendas.”
Therein lies the power of a well-written zombie story: It can provide an opportunity for society to talk about how our truest selves come out during difficult situations. “I think that’s something a lot of zombie literature gets wrong,” Ireland says. “When things get bad, we all of a sudden expect people to change drastically from the people who they were. But if they are inherently selfish and already doing what they can to survive for themselves, then they’re only going to cling more tightly to the old ways of life, rather than letting them go and adopting new ones.”
Consider the civil rights movement, post-Civil War Reconstruction or any opportunity for people to make a big change. “[People] want to protect the things they like, who they are and their identity,” Ireland says. “And I don’t think that’s ever changed throughout history. They opted for the small changes because they were more comfortable as a society.”
“There’s a whole new level of trauma when your dead friend is trying to eat your face.”
For many of these same reasons, Ireland found the world of Dread Nation to be a difficult one to explore. “Time travel’s not fun for people of color,” she says. “It’s like asking, ‘What terrible era can I go live in?’ But real people survived it, and that merits depicting.”
Before she’d even begun writing Dread Nation, Ireland’s desire to communicate these suppressed stories was confirmed in the most authentic and motivating way possible. During a visit to a predominantly black school, Ireland brought copies of her two previous books, Vengeance Bound, which features a white main character on the cover, and Promise of Shadows. A student noticed that Ireland’s book jackets did not feature a person of color and raised her hand to say, “No disrespect, miss, but why’d you write a white girl? I can’t find books with people like me in them.”
Ireland was mortified. “I had to go back and do some self-examination,” she says. “I want to be able to go to a school and proudly hold up a black girl on the cover and say, ‘I wrote this book. I hope you like it because I wrote it for you.’ And every time I sit down at the computer to write, I can hear that little girl’s voice.”
With Dread Nation, Ireland wanted to write the best book she could. She was also thinking of the kind of readers she wanted to invite into her world (which she plans to revisit in a follow-up novel). “I just wanted this book to land in the hands of people who need to see themselves reflected. I wanted to find something that resonates with people and makes them sit up and take notice of a world they hadn’t paid attention to before—and that it leaves them feeling refreshed and alive.”
Author photo by Eric Ireland.