Keep Mama Dead by S. James Nelson

Keep Mama Dead by S. James Nelson

In 1905 of this alternate history, in a country located between Arizona and Utah, 19-year-old Thomas Baker has accepted that his mother won’t last out the day. She’s used up all her second life days, and won’t live again. People should respect someone’s wishes to stay dead, but Thomas’s family will try to resurrect her. They need her to work the farm and cook their meals. They need her for a slave–a companion to Thomas out in the fields.

So Thomas has to stop them. He has to keep his mama dead.

Not a problem–at least, not until Mr. Milne arrives with Miss Sadie. She’s Thomas’s age, and wears a white dress and hat. She has a face like an angel and hair like a halo. But she’s also a zombie raiser–which means the barrier has fallen. The Moabites can invade with their undead army.

And no doubt they will. They want to own the sacred land of Zion’s Canyon–the very location where Thomas’s family will try to resurrect his mama. But he’ll stop his family. Even if that means facing an army of zombies. Or his brother and father.

First, let me say that I was planning to do a review on the Hunger Games movie rather than write about a book. Then, I saw everyone was doing a Hunger Games review, and what new thing did I have to say? Nothing. I loved it. Though I did think the ending was a little weak and I was disappointed that Katniss’s confused emotions and Peeta’s hurt were not better represented. But otherwise I loved it. Now, let me move on.

Keep Mama Dead was recommended by a co-worker.  It’s a freebie for Kindle owners and is a self-published novel.  That might set off warning bells in your head. It usually does for me. Not that remarkably good books can’t be self-published. But soooo many more terribly bad books are self-published, and it’s a chore to wade through the weeds.  I took a chance, based on the recommendation from my co-worker who rarely steers me wrong. I also took a chance, if nothing else, because of how awesome the title is.

The book is well vetted. Mr. Nelson first sent it through the mill works of several (I don’t know how legitimate) writing groups.  They helped him polish it up, but I still think it could use the hand of a professional editor in parts to help with pacing. But then, professionally published books often need the hand of a skilled editor and somehow wind up only getting a fingertip.

The book is targeted for the YA crowd, due in part to most of the main characters’ ages and also because to the lack of discipline that the author uses in adhering to his premise.  Perhaps he thought a young adult audience might be more forgiving than me, who was concurrently reading The Gunslinger, by Stephen King, an author dogged about sticking to the facts of the worlds he creates. It’s probably unfair of me to expect Mr. Nelson to adhere to the same standards to which I hold Mr. King.

The author even goes so far as to note at the end of his book, “As you read…you may have noticed some historical inaccuracies. If not…well, that’s great! If you did, hopefully they didn’t annoy you to the point of distraction. Please rest assured that I’m aware of them, and took liberty to alter history and geography as I saw fit. After all it is a work of fiction, and fantasy at that.” I didn’t read his “apology” until I finished the book.  I think it says something when the author feels the need to write an apology in his own book– something not so good. 

If a writer bothers to build a world, even one that has a basic foundation in reality, then he should make up his rules and stick to them.  Inconsistency is the buzz killer, not the inaccuracies. The inaccuracies are the zombies, magic, and the setting. In world building, you expect inaccuracies, otherwise, you’d be writing non-fiction. The inconsistencies in the story are in his dialogue. The book is set at the turn of the 20th century in a rural community. The characters ride around in wagons. They have no modern conveniences.  For the most part, they dress, act, and talk like you expect rural people to talk in 1905. Like this:

[Thomas wondered what did he look like to Miss Sadie] wearing his faded dungarees and a gray shirt he hadn’t washed in more than a month? And ankle-high boots made of beaten lather, with holes near the big toes. And no socks. How long since he’d had a hair cut? For that matter, when was the last time he’d put a comb through his hair? Or taken a bath? Did his wide brimmed hat hide any of that?

            “Just look at these here overalls, “ Papa said. “Been wearing them for nigh ten years.”

 But then the characters or the narrator will say something discordant. For example, Miss Sadie is hacking a zombie back to death and she looks like a crazy woman, and the narrator and Thomas have this to say about it:

Soon he realized [Miss Sadie] didn’t intend to kill the zombie. She’d already done that. The stench verified it – as if now that the corpse’s animation had ended, it could get on with stinking. No, she didn’t want to make sure it had died.

Rather, here was a girl with some serious emotional issues…Thomas shrugged. ‘She’s got some things to work through.

Go ask your great-great grandma if she ever said that someone had “serious emotional issues” and that they “got some things to work through.” I bet she’d say “no.” Freud and Jung were around during these times, however, so maybe Thomas got ahold of one of their manifestos. Yeah right. Later, Thomas tells Miss Sadie in a sarcastic way that she was “super fun” to talk to.  Next thing you know, he’ll be saying, “OMG!”

Despite these few moments that felt jarring for me, the author writes with a great lyrical voice, almost poetic at times.

Thomas turned to look at Mama. She stood in the kitchen’s open window, just to the left of the open front door. The rising sun’s light hit the back of her colorless dress straight on, and lit up the entire front of the house. The usually black boards glistened silver in the light – all except for two below the kitchen window. Last year Thomas had gone to St. George and bought those to replace some that had simply fallen apart from being leaned on so much. Light brown and un-warped, the new boards looked like the bandages they were…To the kitchen window’s right, the front door hesitated like an old man that couldn’t quite get inside. Down low, at the wooden threshold, dust motes played in the sunlight…

Another reason why I might say the book is targeted more for the YA is the lack of sophistication in the plot. My co-worker and I both suspected what was happening pretty early on. The coincidences were a little too obvious for us, but Thomas and his family had a lot of emotional turmoil to deal with and his urgency to keep his mama dead against his family’s urgency to bring  her back to life probably overshadowed their logic. In their shoes, I probably would have been just as distracted and clueless. I do have to say, in retrospect, the author did some pretty nice foreshadowing, some of it subtler than others. 

Thomas was a reasonably flawed character.  He was no Mary Sue (or Larry Stu). He made bad choices. He was weak at times that you wanted him to be stronger.  Sometimes he was selfish and judgmental. He was real.

It’s a zombie book but with some fresh ideas about religion, family, and choice versus duty. I recommend it. It also doesn’t hurt that its free.

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