When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

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When Women Were Dragons

by Kelly Barnhill
May 3, 2022 · Doubleday
Science Fiction/Fantasy

When Women Were Dragons is unlike any other book I’ve read and I found to be painful, joyous, and liberating. I couldn’t stop reading it even when it made my chest hurt, and I’ve thought of it so many times since, with scenes popping into my head as though I just read them yesterday. This is not a romance, but it will appeal to those who like women’s history with a side of rage and fantasy.

Alex Green is a little girl in 1950’s middle America when she first sees a dragon. No one will talk about dragons. People are reluctant to even mention them, and the government suppresses news and research about them. But across the country, women are turning into dragons and flying away in a process allied simply ‘dragoning’ – a few at a time, usually, with the exception of “the Mass Dragoning 0f 1955 – also known as The Day of Missing Mothers”. In this coming-of-age story, Alex grows up with the constant mystery of why some women dragon and what the phenomenon means for her family and her future.

Alex’s story, dragons aside, is a pretty straightforward coming of age tale taking her from her childhood through her early twenties, and revisiting her as an older woman. Like her mother, Alex is a brilliant mathematician who is relentlessly pressured by society to leave math to men and instead to devote herself to raising her younger sister and staying within the domestic sphere. Most of the plot involves her struggles to care for her sister and to get to college despite a complete lack of familial support. She also deals with trauma caused by emotional abuse from her father, the pressures of a world that wants her to live a life she hates, and a legacy of abandonment from women who have dragoned and left her behind. Dragoning in this story is more of a metaphor than anything else – a spectacularly gorgeous and thrilling metaphor.

The writing in this book is just stunning. The only magical element in the story is the existence of dragons, which fits seamlessly into the themes of the history. The language is both magical and matter-of-fact, as in this passage from the first chapter, when Alex is four years old:

Finally, because I had come to see the little old lady, and I was nothing if not a specifically purposeful little girl, I cleared my throat and demanded to know where she was. The dragon looked at me, startled. It said nothing. It winked one eye. It held one finger to its lipless jaws as though to say, “Shhh.” And then, without waiting for anything else, it curled its legs under its great body like a spring, tilted its face upward toward the clouds overhead, unfurled its wings, and, with a grunt, pushed the earth away, leaping toward the sky…

…I didn’t see the little old lady after that. No one mentioned her. It was as though she never existed. I tried to ask, but I didn’t have enough information to even form a question. I looked to the adults in my life to provide reason or reassurance, but found none. Only silence. The little old lady was gone. I saw something that I couldn’t understand. There was no space to mention it.

The book is hard to read, because many unfair and cruel things happen to Alex and to other women in the book, mostly the mundane cruelties, both systemic and individual, that were experienced by women (especially LGBTQIA women and women of color) in the 1950’s – 1970’s in America. The story is filled with loss and struggle and frustration and heartbreak. This story is rough, y’all. It will break your heart again and again and again. It will make you angry. It will make you sad.

However, this is also a book full of liberation, found family, creativity, acceptance, and joy. I find it difficult to articulate how powerful this book was in depicting women’s rage and women’s liberations, and also in depicting multiple different paths to liberation. It also talks about the cost of survival in a hostile society and the many ways that women and marginalized people are forced to make themselves small and silent:

Anger is a funny thing. And it does funny things to us when we keep it inside. I encourage you to consider a question: who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?

In addition to Alex, who is a deeply sympathetic character, the book features a badass librarian, a tenacious scientist, a mom who is also a math genius, knot magic, a lesbian aunt who is a car mechanic and a former WASP, and teachers of both the awful and the astonishingly wonderful variety. Although this is not a romance novel, it does involve a f/f love story as well as some other powerful stories of love. I appreciated the fact that supporting characters include transwomen, women who are lesbian or bisexual, older women, including older women in romantic relationships, and people of color. This inclusion was vital to making the book feel comprehensive and like a real story of liberation.

Interwoven with Alex’s story are vignettes about dragoning incidents, which are deeply gratifying to read about as they tend to involve powerful acts of justice and magic. Although the science behind dragoning is discussed, it mostly works via Rule of Cool, so keep that in mind if you like your magic to be fully explained.

I adored this book. I felt deeply and passionately about Alex. As she grows up, Alex comes across as a real, complicated, admirable, flawed human being. I longed for her to thrive. I could not stop reading, because I cared so deeply about the characters. As painful as much of this book was, I loved the ending and the many, many moments of grace and freedom that appeared all throughout the story. I also loved the unexpectedness of the story, which allows for more than one path to be valid. This was an astonishing, gripping, and inspiring read that I will return to again and again.

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