When Women Were Dragons

When Women Were Dragons

by Kelly Barnhill
Genres: Fiction / Coming of Age, Fiction / Fantasy / General, Fiction / Feminist
Published on May 3, 2022
Pages: 352
Format: eBook Source: Library

A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman’s place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. • The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and
watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.

The Mass Dragoning of 1955 changed society. Suddenly a huge number of women were just gone. A lot of husbands and other nasty men died violently that day. And now, it just isn’t mentioned in polite society.

“People are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.”

This is a book about the empowerment that can come from female rage. Alex’s aunt never quite fit into the hetereosexual, patriarchial society that had strict ideas about how women should behave. Now she is gone and left behind her daughter Beatrice. Alex ends up raising Beatrice and trying to live up to her mother’s ideals.

Alex and her mother were both brilliant at math. Her mother did not dragon and impressed upon Alex the importance of never mentioning it. She never mentioned her sister, even to the point of insisting that Beatrice was Alex’s sister and always had been.

“And now I realize, there is a freedom in forgetting. Or at least it is something that feels like freedom. There is a freedom in not asking questions. There is a freedom in being unburdened by unpleasant information. And sometimes, a person has to hang on to whatever freedoms she can get.”

I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about the women who don’t transition. Are they choosing to live a human life? Are they being held back by something? Several are described as living their own mighty lives. I’m not quite sure what point the author was trying to make with them. I loved the librarian in the book. She’s amazing and she wasn’t a dragon.

I’ve seen a lot of people on Goodreads be super concerned about the types of women mentioned in this book. I read one review that went on about how there were only white lesbians in the book and everyone else was ignored. All types of women are discussed in the book. There are both cis and trans women. Women of all ages and races are here. There are drag performers who transition during a show. It isn’t explicitly stated whether they were transwomen or cis men or genderqueer or what.

This book wasn’t as plot-driven as the stories that I usually read. Because of that I had to sort of push myself to get through it. I was interested mainly in the excerpts from Congressional hearings and other news that was interspersed through the main narrative. Those kept me coming back. Alex’s story was much slower and less well explained.

This story was inspired by the author’s rage while watching the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. The examples of sexism in this book are absolutely rage inducing and oh so relatable. May we all be dragons.