Check out our episode here! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born in Rose Hill plantation to the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky. She might have grown to become a proper house girl or taken the place of Aunt Aggie, the lady who mostly raised her, but two days after she was born, the dead began walking the battlefield of Gettysburg.
When Jane got older she was sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat where she learned to wield a multitude of weapons in order to kill the dead. She was also expected to learn etiquette, but those weren’t her best subjects. Miss Duncan, a fine if inhuman instructor in Jane’s opinion, has the class working hard with a scythe which Jane hates; twin sickles are her weapon of choice. The girls of Miss Preston’s hope to one day become Attendants, girls who keep their charge alive and safe from Shamblers and their virtue intact from suitors. As the class is dismissed, Miss Duncan reminds them to wear their Sunday best for a lecture they are to attend that evening at the university, an event Jane scoffs at the thought of attending and plans on missing.
Jane is called to the headmistress’s office. Waiting inside is Miss Preston and Miss Anderson, a sour faced instructor. Jane is in trouble for failing her etiquette lessons and reading newspapers (gasp!). This could be serious as she’s already on academic probation because of not caring enough about the importance of gravy boats. Jane’s defense is innocence with a smattering of accusation, stating Miss Anderson’s test was unfair, they hadn’t covered European place settings in class. Thankfully this works somewhat and buys Jane more time; however, she has to go to Professor Ghering’s lecture that evening. Ugggh. Fine.
Jane is, of course, running late to the carriage and has to ride with Miss Duncan and Katherine, never Kate, Deveraux, a fellow Miss Preston’s girl. Katherine is the prettiest girl at the school according to Jane, and could easily pass for white. She also irritates Jane and she would totally dislike her if Katherine weren’t such a crack shot with a rifle. The transport isn’t your typical horse and carriage (the dead killed all the horses after they first rose), this is a pony, a sort of a train without tracks where the driver has a protective cab up front with a steam engine and the passengers travel in a separate iron-barred enclosure. As they travel into Baltimore they spot a shambler, a little white girl with pigtails. It’s unusual to see one so close to the town... Mayor Carr had Baltimore County declared a safe zone months ago.
Speaking of young girls, we’re given a glimpse at a younger Jane and her first encounter with a shambler. She’d been out playing with a couple of boys, Zeke and Joe Issac. The shambler was caught in a wire fence, mouth gaping open. Jane isn’t sure why they decided to poke the shambler with sharpened sticks, but they did, and the shambler broke free. Joe was about to be grabbed when Zeke pushed him out of the way and had his throat ripped out. Jane managed to grab Joe and pull him back to the plantation letting the patrol know what happened. They were able to give Zeke a proper burning and a few years later, Joe ran off, presumably to join a combat school.
The journey passes without incident. While they travel, Jane gives her theory on what causes the dead to rise and we find out that Jane very much enjoys reading newspapers which are seen as contraband at Miss Preston’s. Essentially she believes it’s a virus of sorts but doesn’t word it properly, saying they’re tiny monsters invading the body. Miss Duncan and Katherine give her you’re-talking-crazy looks. Shortly after, they pass through the gate and Jane is staggered by the height of the wall which they are still adding to. After they alight from the pony, a very smartly dressed boy with a swagger comes up to Jane, it’s Jackson Keats. They had a thing once, but not anymore. For Jane, Jackson is only good for sneaking her newspapers. He and his shenanigans are no longer interesting.
After a little trouble with some men in the foyer that some overacting couldn’t solve, Jane and Katherine are seated in the lecture hall and the auditorium is packed. The Mayor and his family are there, as well as white and black academics, fashionable ladies and of course Miss Preston’s girls. Professor Ghering takes the stage and talks about pathogens, to which Jane smirks at Katherine’s consternated expression; however, any sense stops there as he spouts some very outdated period appropriate beliefs on racial differences. The man is, to quote Jane, “a crackpot.” Evidenced even further when a cage with three shamblers inside is brought on stage. The Professor starts the hard sales pitch on a vaccine he has developed which will be demonstrated on stage when he injects his black assistant Othello and lets the shamblers bite him. What could go wrong?! Jane stands up and tries to politely warn them and object to the testing because she can see exactly what is going to happen; however, she is “politely” asked to sit back down and keep quiet. Othello is summarily bitten by the shamblers for science and exhibition, and as the Professor spouts some nonsense or other, Othello promptly turns shambler. Miss Preston’s girls, old and new, show their worth by evacuating the hall. Jane heads to the stage and puts a bullet in Othello’s head after he attacked the Professor and one in the Professor’s to make sure he doesn’t rise. When she is out of bullets she throws herself into the fray, the last of the shamblers is taken down by a Cherokee man, Mr. Redfern, who gives her a scowl before walking off.
When they get back to Miss Preston’s, instead of a job well done and a ribbon, she and Katherine are given house duties for two weeks for carrying firearms and wearing a corset! Shocking behavior! It’s while they’re cleaning the marbled floor one day that Jackson comes by and tells Jane his sister Lily and the family she was staying with, the Spencers, have gone missing. Jane likes Lily and the Spencers were always kind to Miss Preston’s girls, so she and Katherine agree to investigate. Later that night they sneak out, don men’s trousers, grab weapons, and they go to the Spencer’s farm where Jackson is waiting. It looks as if they’ve been gone a little while as the surfaces are dusty, but they’re not sure what made them leave as they didn’t take their family portrait. Jackson explains to Katherine that Lily was staying with the Spencer’s as she is coming up to her 12th birthday and can pass white. The law states that a person of color must attend a combat school at 12, but Jackson was trying to save his sister from that with the help of the Spencers. It’s then they hear people approaching the house.
Jane, Katherine and Jackson hide in a shambler’s hole and can hear voices overhead. One of them is Miss Anderson, the vicious and cantankerous instructor. It sounds as if the mayor ordered a cover-up of the Spencer family’s departure, voluntarily or not is unclear, but at least it seems they are still alive. When the coast is clear, they emerge and start to head back to Miss Preston’s, but suddenly, there is a pack of shamblers. They’re able to deal with them without incident. When Jane suggests to Jackson they meet up to discuss what to do next about Lily and the Spencers, he rejects her and tells Jane it’s his sister and his problem before walking off.
The next day is a fog to both Jane and Katherine, as they get no sleep having returned to Miss Preston's just in time for class. That evening, they are both called into Miss Preston’s office where the headmistress informs them that in recognition of their heroics at the lecture, the Mayor’s wife has invited them to a formal dinner. They will augment her household staff and act as attendants. With them will be Miss Anderson as chaperone, and Miss Duncan will also attend.
The day before they are to attend the dinner, Jackson sneaks on to the grounds of Miss Preston’s. He's been beaten by the Mayor’s boys for trying to sneak into the mansion to look for information about Lily’s whereabouts. Katherine lets him know they will be at the mansion the following day and offers to help him. The following night, Jane spots Jackson dressed as a servant in the dining room. Oh no... there is going to be mischief tonight. As Katherine and Jane take their places, standing behind and watching their charges eat, Katherine tells Jane that the reason they were requested was because many of the attendants from the lecture were let go. Mr. Redfern, the native from the lecture, comes to stand beside Jane. He doesn’t like her because she sneaks out at night to kill shamblers which he thinks is reckless, arrogant and self-important. As Jane contemplates this, she spots one of the dinner guests sweating profusely, hands shaking, saliva leaking from his mouth. He’s turning. Asking to borrow Mr. Redfern’s blade, Jane throws it straight into the temple of the turning man just as he stands up and leans towards Miss Anderson. Both of her instructors do not look pleased.
The meal might be spoiled, but to be fair the meat was a little off to begin with. The guests willing to stay retire to the salon. Jane is incensed because something rotten is going on and no one seems to care. Is the mayor keeping shamblers as pets? How else would the dinner guest have turned? Jane leaves the salon and bumps into Jackson who asks for her help to look for clues to find Lily. In the Mayor’s study, Jane is able to open a desk drawer, and inside she finds a book with the word SUMMERLAND printed in gold. Before they can look further, the study door opens and in walks Miss Anderson.
Miss Anderson strips them of their weapons and clasps them in irons. They’re taken down into the cellar where the mayor is waiting. He gives some big speech about them being trouble but easy to catch then suggests they be sent out West to Summerland where they can do some good. What do you think, Miss Preston? (Gasp!) Miss Preston walks out of the shadows. She also suggests sending Katherine, who can fight as an attendant or work on her back. Miss Preston has been working with the Mayor for years supplying him with girls. It’s then someone bursts in and says there has been a breach, but the mayor seems more annoyed than panicked.
The next day, the train for Summerland leaves at six. As Miss Anderson loads the girls aboard, she throws, amongst her insults, a thick packet of letters from Jane’s mother. It’s a long, hot and uncomfortable five day journey with little food or water, and the whole time, Jane feels the rage boiling at Miss Anderson, Miss Preston and the Mayor, she will kill them all. It’s made worse as she reads through her momma’s letters. When they reach Summerland, Jane's in no mood to be nice to her captors. Mr. Redfern has come to Summerland with them and receives a punch to the face off Jackson who tries, and fails, to escape. Summerland isn’t what Jane was expecting though. Everything is new, it’s so flat, the barrier wall is huge and they have horses. Mr. Redfern, now dragging Jackson, takes them to see Sheriff Snyder.
The Sheriff is a racist dickhead. He tells them what to expect, that there is a curfew unless on patrol, they get paid (which annoys him), he won’t let people of color carry firearms but they can access an array of bladed weapons, and they get one bath a week, room and board. Apparently Summerland is a town of morals so no sex or drinking and lots of religion. After being given the spiel, Jane tells him Katherine is white so it was pointless telling her it. Katherine is stunned but goes along with the story that she was tricked by the mayor's wife because the mayor took a fancy to her. He isn’t sure, but says they have tests to check. This is when another man walks in and takes them to his lab.
Mr. Gideon, also known as the Professor or the tinkerer, has a genuine laboratory, and he is to test Katherine for whiteness and give Jane her vaccine. She is skeptical it works regardless of whose design it is since she has seen the results of the last one. Once they’re finished with Mr. Gideon, they’re taken to get clothes, then to see the real power of the town, the Preacher. Pastor Snyder (the sheriff's father) is even more racist, he won’t allow people of color in his church, so Jane is dismissed to go to the Duchess’s place, otherwise known as the brothel, where she will also be staying whilst Katherine, as a lady and fair blossom, will be looked after by the townsfolk. The Duchess in contrast to most in the town so far is nice and shows Jane to a cot and gives Jane some valuable information, including that the Sheriff lost his pretty blonde wife to the plague a few years ago.
Jane is woken early the next morning, and a long walk later, they’re in a field where the boys are to fix fences and the girls are to patrol the top of the wall. The weapons they’re given are an insult, dull and rusty farm implements. No wonder so many die out there. Jane’s had enough and takes issue with the Sheriff which results in a boot to her shoulder. All day Jane seethes. On the way back to town, Jane spots a girl who has fallen into the no man's area and another trying to reach her. Despite the dual sickle weapons she selected being next to useless, Jane still goes to save them. One of the shamblers she takes down was a Miss Preston’s graduate who was there the night of the lecture. At one point Jane is able to take a sword from a shambler in his civil war uniform, and the actual weapon makes taking down the shamblers much easier.
The days pass with the same routine, get up, patrol the wall, eat dinner, attend church, whether they want to or not, and go to bed. One night Jane feels restless and sneaks out, curfews never bothered her before, and accidentally ends up in Mr. Gideon’s bedroom. This of course wakes the tinkerer up so it’s a good time to ask some questions about Summerland, why people come there, where’s Jackson, (he believes he is dead) and how he ended up there himself... He got on the wrong side of his father.
On another night, Jane sneaks out to find more food since they’re being starved and finds the Spencers and Lily. Jane doesn’t tell Lily that Jackson is gone but she does find out how they ended up in Summerland. Mr. Spencer couldn’t afford the mayor’s loan repayment so it was either leave the county or move to Summerland. It was done too quickly to get word out. Katherine is living next door, spreading the word about how unsafe Summerland is. Lily also has something to show Jane, they go underground where there is a warning sign: DANGER: ELECTRIC - KEEP OUT. Beyond are shamblers in a giant hamster wheel cage generating the electricity for Summerland. As she’s looking at the set up in horror, Mr. Gideon catches her unawares and he shows her how it works. He says he’s helped make a Survivalist nightmare. As Jane emerges above ground, she is greeted by Sheriff Snyder.
Jane is taken by the Sheriff's men to the whipping post, fighting the whole way. The Preacher is there and orders everyone to be woken for this special sermon. As Jane waits for the twenty lashes, her clothes rip when she’s grabbed, exposing her to the vast crowd. Then the whipping begins. It’s horrific. At the eleventh lash, Katherine begs them to stop and it works. Suddenly, as she spots the way the Sheriff is looking at Katherine, Jane knows how they’re going to escape. In the whore house, Jane explains to the Duchess and Gideon that the way to defeat the Sheriff is through his heart. He had a wife once, he wants one again. A nice, pretty upstanding lady just like Katherine. She’ll be the bait, they’ll arrange for him to be bitten and then Jane will end him. Katherine agrees to the plan too and is able to persuade the sheriff to return Jane to her attendants duties and get her sickles back.
A week after the whipping, Jane is at Katherine’s side. The Sheriff is trying to woo Katherine when one of his men runs up, frantic. All Jane can hear is breach, eastern fence and townsfolk before the Sheriff departs. This is an excellent time to snoop in the Sheriff's office, but there is a whole heap of nothing there, but they are found in there by none other than Jackson, who isn’t dead. Mr. Redfern took him out to kill him on the Sheriff's orders but instead he was given a canteen and a knife and taken to the town boundary. He found a town a bit further south called Nicodemus, and Miss Duncan and some Preston’s girls are there. That's where they escaped to when Baltimore County was overrun by shamblers. A little while later, once they’ve returned to Katherine’s house, Mr. Gideon knocks and arranges for both of them to join him for lunch the following day; he has something to discuss.
That night, close to curfew, there is an insistent knock at the door. The sheriff is there and he needs to borrow Jane, the shamblers have breached to the east and they need to put the horde down, so everyone who can wield a weapon needs to come. Jane gathers her weapons, the sword and twin sickles, and joins the crew outside. The question is, how was the wall compromised? Shamblers can't reason or climb. It’s a grueling pace to the breach but eventually someone yells “It’s the dead!” The Sheriff tries to order a line, but it’s soon chaos because of the pitch darkness. Jane shouts up for lights which are flares provided by Mr. Gideon, and they see the dead. Not the 30-40 they expected... but hundreds.
Without thinking, Jane shouts to get in line, keep the lanterns burning, keep talking, take one down and move to the next… the crowds pick this up, offering advice to others and preparing themselves. When Mr. Gideon fires his flares, the shamblers are now standing still just outside the lantern light. Jane and her fellows let out a defiant roar and the dead attack. The battle rages until the dead can be put down. There are losses but it would have gone a lot worse if Jane hadn’t stepped up. The Sheriff won’t be happy to be upstaged by her.
The next day as Katherine and Jane are on their way to lunch with Mr. Gideon, the Sheriff stops them. He’s not mad about Jane taking charge, in fact he seems somewhat grateful and contrite. (Something is up, so plans are going to have to be brought forward.) At lunch, they discuss the damage the Survivalists have caused by selling people on a pipe dream and we find out that Mr. Gideon is in fact Gideon Carr, son of Mayor Carr of Baltimore! (Gasp!) Gideon tells them the attack last night isn’t the first, and it’s getting worse each time. Gideon asserts that the shamblers are communicating in a way, using scent similarly to insects. The Sheriff, of course, doesn’t believe him. When Katherine and Jane go to inspect the wall repairs they see familiar people in the bodies, one of those is Mr. Spencer, which is not normal. They guess the sheriff sent him out on fence-fixing duty to teach him a lesson, but instead he died with the others in the crew and that drew the horde the previous night. When they get back to town, they find out a massive horde is coming that will wipe Summerland off the map. Jane goes to warn the Duchess and tells her it’s time to leave town. The Duchess warns Jane that the sheriff knows Katherine is black. The Pastor made inquiries once he saw the Sheriff had taken a liking to her.
Jane races to the Sheriff's office, Katherine and the Pastor are also there. Things don’t go well and they end up in a confederate standoff with Katherine being held by the Sheriff. Katherine goes limp, and Jane and the Sheriff both fire. The Sheriff stumbles back, his throat torn apart and his shot going wild. Behind them the Pastor is on the ground with a bleeding hole in his shoulder, so that’s where the sheriff's bullet ended up. Jane sends Katherine to the armory while she deals with the Pastor. Jane doesn’t kill him, she confesses. When she was a girl, during the Years of Discord, she remembers her mother’s husband coming home bringing fear, sending people to needlessly die to pay the prices of progress. Well, Jane couldn’t let him carry on and reveals it wasn’t a shambler who ended Major McKeene’s life, it was her, his own daughter. Katherine is standing in the armory door listening, so Jane tells Katherine her mother was like her, passing white. She was a slave, her mistress died on the road to meet her fiancé, and Jane's momma took her place.
As the pair exit the Sheriff’s office, there is chaos outside as townsfolk shout questions so Jane yells that there are shamblers in the town. Problem solved. As they make their way through town to find Lily and the Spencers, the tidal wave of the dead break through the walls. They meet up with the Duchess and her girls and use Gideon’s tunnel system to move around out of the chaos. When they reach Lily, the girl is alone with Spencer's baby, Mrs. Spencer has been gone since the day before. Deciding it is quicker to travel by carriage, they go to the barn where some of the Sheriff’s men are trying to steal the horse and carriage. One points his gun at Lily, calling her deadweight, and Jackson shoots him in the head. Jackson does like to save the day last minute. Taking Spencer's horse and carriage, they escape Summerland and head to Nicodemus, but that won’t be for long as Jackson passed along a letter from one of Preston's girls. It’s from Jane's momma, Rose Hill, the place where she grew up, has been overrun and the household has fled. She pleads for Jane to come find her, and says she’s in a survivalist town out West, in Haven, California.