Into the ‘Deathless Divide’

In this sequel to ‘Dread Nation,’ biracial girls fight zombies in the American West

Once upon a time, Justina Ireland might have been more famous for her Twitter feed calling out racism in the publishing industry than for her books.

Ireland remains a vocal advocate for inclusion and diversity. But when her young-adult novel Dread Nation hit shelves in 2018, her reputation as an author rightly blossomed.

Dread Nation is the story of a post-Civil War America overrun by zombie “shamblers” and the young women trained as Attendants to protect the well-to-do. It won critical accolades and a slew of awards, as well as a place on the New York Times bestseller list.

Race underpins its themes of haves and have-nots; heroine Jane McKenna is among many black and biracial girls that Miss Preston’s School of Combat teaches how to protect their rich white employers. But the Walking Dead alt-history plot was robust, gripping storytelling.

For her new sequel, Deathless Divide, Ireland goes west.

Fierce scrapper Jane and haughty Katherine Devereaux arrive at the walled city of Nicodemus with a clutch of other survivors who escaped the shambler hordes that overtook their previous settlement of Summerland. They’re hoping to continue on to California, where Jane’s mother and aunt reportedly wait. Jane is wary of Nicodemus from the get-go, particularly since they promptly arrest her for killing the sheriff back in Summerland.

What’s worse, Gideon Carr is there. Scientist Carr insists he can produce a vaccine against shamblers’ bites. His testing methods, however, are suspect.

“There were more than a few folks who were looking for some way to reinstitute slavery, that peculiar institution,” Jane says. “Claiming Negroes had been bitten and survived was just the answer they’d been searching for.”

Deathless Divide has all the action of Dread Nation and then some. Jane and Katherine each have a combat specialty: “My Mollies are not about flash and dash, like Jane’s sickles,” thinks Katherine, who still insists on wearing a corset, albeit loosened to allow her more freedom of movement. “There are no spins or kicks or any kind of full-body theatrics. The Mollies are about discipline. Keeping two swords moving at all times, marking the interlocking patterns and defending while also ending the dead–decapitation being the preferred method for such a task–it is all a difficult endeavor, one that requires an inner tranquility.”

Each girl also has her own way of coping with dystopia. Katherine tries to retain her civility and manners at all costs, and isn’t above letting her light skin help them when others think she’s white. Jane hardens herself, increasingly refusing to let anyone pierce her emotional armor.

Justina Ireland (credit: Eric Ireland)

While the two see the world very differently, their against-all-odds bond and equally steadfast independence shine through. Love interests beckon each girl, but Deathless Divide very much centers Jane, Katherine, and their emerging alliance.

The story becomes even more interesting once a twist of fates separates the two on their journeys to California. Cue a shambler-infested American West, complete with Jane as a bounty hunter eventually dubbed the Devil’s Bride by newspapers: “In the East, the dead could get you just as surely as pneumonia or yellow fever–quick, quiet, hard deaths,” Jane says. “But in California it would be bears or bobcats or maybe a claim jumper, all noisy, violent ways to go. California was a wild land full of strong, ferocious people, and I liked that.”

If you’re a fan of strong women and ferocious action, you’ll like Deathless Divide too.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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