The Significance of Nicodemus in “Dread Nation”

In the book “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland, the Civil War ends on *slightly* different terms than it did in real life, when the North and South must unite against a new mutual enemy as fields of war dead rise out of the ground as zombies, or “shamblers” as this book calls them. The institution of slavery is ended, but biracial protagonist Jane is not free to pursue any life she chooses due to the new law forcing black and Native American youth to be “re-educated” at zombie-combat schools so that they can serve as personal protectors for upper-class white people.

cover of the book on the left, title page of the book on the right signed by author Justina Ireland and stamped with "like dust from the ground still, we rise"

Jane spends much of the narrative in a fictional settlement in Kansas called Summerland, where racial segregation remains as stubbornly un-dead as the shamblers outside its walls, but towards the end of the book another Kansas town is mentioned. Nicodemus is said to be founded by “Egalitarians” (as opposed to the “Survivalists” that run Summerland), a pacifist community that carefully rations supplies and is willing to accept refugees but not to engage in a confrontation with their ideologically opposed neighbors. Even though it is only briefly mentioned in the book, I was excited to see it as I recognized that the significance of Nicodemus fit very well within the themes of “Dread Nation”.

The real-life Nicodemus, Kansas was founded in 1877 and is famous for being the only town settled by black pioneers after the Civil War that still exists today, though its current population is quite small.  Like Jane, the pioneers who first plowed the fields and lived in dugouts in the early days of Nicodemus were incredibly tough and persistent in the face of extreme hardships. Like Jane, they faced not only the obstacles of the natural world but also the systemic racism that made it even harder for them to succeed, yet the town persisted even after they were overlooked by the railroad, a fate that ended many other small Kansas towns, and in 1996 it was designated as a National Historic Site . You can watch videos interviews with Nicodemus residents at this link, recorded as part of an oral history project in 2011. This 2017 reflection on Nicodemus by Wayne Hare is also well worth reading.

The narrative of “Dread Nation” ends with Jane en route to Nicodemus, but a sequel is said to be forthcoming, although no release date or title have been announced yet. I am looking forward to seeing how the town of Nicodemus and some version of its real-life story are featured in this alternate-history fantasy series. In the meantime, if you need something new to read while you wait for the sequel, check out some of the links above, or check out the town of Nicodemus itself if you find yourself in Kansas on highway 24.

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