In its Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The schools for whites were often superior to their counterparts for black students and consequently the separate schools offered very different educational opportunities. This ruling was key to the civil rights movement and efforts to end segregation.
On September 3, 1957, nine black students were barred from entry into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. By September 23, after another court decision ruled that Arkansas’ governor could not keep them out, the Little Rock Nine were able to begin their school year in the white high school. President Eisenhower also sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to help protect the black students from harassment that ranged from insults to acid being thrown into one student’s face.
Eight of the Little Rock Nine finished the school year at the Central High. In May of 1958 Ernest Green graduated from the school, the only minority in his graduating class of 602 students. Fifty years later, Daniel Waters’ debut novel Generation Dead (2008) offers a new take on integration and the fight for civil rights. In Oakvale, Connecticut parents and students alike are worried about the new students transferring to Oakvale High to benefit from the school’s program of integration. Some of the new students are minorities, some of them are not. The reason all of the new students prove worrisome to some locals is more fundamental: The new students are dead.
All over the country, dead teenagers are waking up and rejoining the living—more or less. Called “living impaired” or “differently biotic” by a politically correct society, many of the undead kids prefer the term “zombie.” No one knows why some teenagers come back and some don’t. The only certainty is that everything changed the moment these zombies began trying to reconnect with the world of the living.
Unfortunately, some (living) people would prefer to have the zombies stay dead. Permanently. Everyone knows that names can never hurt them, but for undead teens that don’t heal sticks and stones suddenly seem much more dangerous, especially when the government has no laws to protect differently biotic citizens. After all, citizenship is supposed to expire when the citizen does, isn’t it?
In Generation Dead integration doesn’t start with a court decision detailing undead rights. Instead it starts with Tommy Williams trying out for the football team. Dead for about a year, no one expects Tommy to survive tryouts, let alone make the team. Except that he does.
Suddenly, the zombies don’t seem quite so different. Phoebe Kendall, a traditionally biotic (albeit pale) student, realizes that better than anyone as she begins to observe Tommy and the other living impaired students at her school including Tommy and Karen (the girl featured on the novel’s cover and possibly this reviewer’s favorite character). The more Phoebe sees of zombies like Tommy and Karen, the more they seem like any normal teenager, well mostly.
No one questions Phoebe’s motivations for befriending Tommy until it begins to look like the two of them are more than friends. Margi, Phoebe’s best friend and fellow Goth, can’t understand what Phoebe could see in a dead boy. Every time her neighbor Adam sees Phoebe with Tommy, he can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t feel the same way about him when he’s actually alive.
Eventually Margi and Adam come around, forming their own tentative bonds with the zombies in their midst. Meanwhile, other students at Oakvale remain hostile. Determined to make sure that the dead students invading their school stay dead for good this time, they set a vicious plan into motion that will irrevocably change everything for Phoebe and her friends—dead and alive.
Written in the third person, Waters alternates viewpoints throughout the novel. Each of the main characters mentioned here, specifically Phoebe and Adam, have sections of the novel related from their perspective. The novel even features narration from one of the students strongly opposed to the zombie presence in Oakvale. This technique, aside from demonstrating Waters’ masterful writing skills, offers a fully informed perspective on the events of the novel with its variety of viewpoints.
Upon first glance, this book looks like a quirky but not necessarily serious book. A cover with a dead cheerleader wearing biker books can have that effect on readers. And yet, even though the story is about zombies, it isn’t just another fun book. Filled with smart writing and an utterly original story, Generation Dead also adds to the ongoing conversation about tolerance and equality suggesting that people often have more in common than not. Even with zombies.
(You can get even more of that zombie perspective at Tommy's blog My So-Called Undeath.)