This is the second time this year (and ever) that Kelly Barnhill managed to blow me away. I have only discovered her recently through her novella The Crane Husband, and while it seems like she’s working through some of the same things in this novel, I felt that it even surpassed the novella in skill. When you expect a certain thing from the synopsis and end up both getting what was promised but also so much more, that means the book is a winner. I won’t be able to get this out of my head for a long time and I wish I had read it in time for Hugo nominations. Because, boy, does this one deserve an award or three!
WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS
by Kelly Barnhill
Published: Hot Key Books, 2022
eBook: 430 pages
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: I was four years old when I first met a dragon.
Learn about the Mass Dragoning of 1955 in which 300,000 women spontaneously transform into dragons…and change the world.
Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant 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. Seemingly for good. 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, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.
I sometimes find it entertaining to read only negative reviews of books that I really, really like. Not only because it’s interesting to see how people can receive one and the same thing in such different ways, but also to see if I’m perhaps wearing pink-tinted glasses and missing something about the novel that isn’t quite as perfect. When the book holds up, despite me reading what other people criticize, that is a clear indicator that I’ve got a new favorite on my hands. If I end up agreeing with the critiques or if I notice that I’ve glossed over some things I should have caught, I’ll obviously still like the book but my feelings will be more temperate. This book, dear readers, goes in the first category and here is why.
The main story follows a girl named Alex Green from a very early age, told in first person looking back at her life as a (presumably) adult or even old woman. It begins when she is four and has neither words nor concepts to understand or express the things she witnesses and feels. In between the Alex chapters, we get snippets of scientific papers, about this thing called dragoning, and the Mass Dragoning of 1955, in particular. Alex tells us her life story, leading up to the fateful events of that day in the mid-fifties, when all of a sudden, thousands and thousands of wives and mothers stopped whatever they were doing, shed their skin and turned into literal dragons. Some ate their husbands, some incinerated the building they were in, others just flew away. But what they all have in common is that they leave a gaping hole where a woman used to be, one that the remaining family and friends are ill-equipped to handle. Add to that the government’s efforts to suppress any mention of the Mass Dragoning. It becomes an unmentionable thing, something that makes people blush, something everyone would rather pretend didn’t happen.
And that’s how Alex ends up with a sister that used to be her cousing, but now has always been her sister. And what do you mean, her aunt? She’s never had an aunt, certainly not one called Aunt Marla, who fixes cars like a pro, flew planes during the War, and was a solid rock in Alex’s life when her own mother got very sick and went away for a while… No, no, there are no aunts and Beatrice has always been Alex’s little sister.
I love so many things about this book, it’s hard to choose where to start. But I suppose as it’s her story, I’ll begin with Alex Green, that wonderful, self-aware, and yet so flawed but loveable protagonist. Not only do we see her grow up during eventful times, but she manages to live through some serious hardships, and mostly without the help of others. The way she cares about her cousin/sister Beatrice and the unfair way the world (though mostly her father) treats them, was so well written that I felt every word viscerally. I admit this book made me cry on several occasions, but most of all when I thought about all the ways Alex wasn’t allowed to be a regular child, wasn’t allowed to be herself – re: her friendship with Sonja that she definitely wants to be more than just friendship – and was constantly told where people like her (women) belonged. Who cares that she’s a genius in school, like her mother was before her? A university degree isn’t going to help her get a husband, and what good does a maths degree do her when it comes to folding laundry and cooking dinners? Ah right, the good old 1950ies…
Which leads me to the next thing that was brilliantly done. Mind you, this is what several other readers didn’t like, as they found it over the top. To me, the descriptions of casual everyday sexism, both systemic and on a smaller scale social level, felt all too believable and realistic. There are several characters in this book that I read as lesbian and in all such cases, they were treated as abnormal and “why can’t you just marry a nice guy like everyone else” seemed to be the “solution” to their “problem”. But you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community to have a hard time in this story. Simply being a girl is enough too. Like when the teachers hide the fact that you scored highest in a school-wide test, in order not to dampen the boys’ spirits when they see they were beaten by a girl. That and myriad other ways of sexism, oppression, even phyiscal violance, made the setting and era of this book so compelling, but also so painful to read.
I also adored the scientific asides we get to read about dragonings, as they shed a light on what may have caused such a thing in all these women. I don’t want to give too much away, but there were a million little ways that made me love Kelly Barnhill’s writing here. Whether it’s the fact that not only AFAB people could dragon but also what is here called “women by choice”, very young girls, and post-menopausal women; or the fact that the longer we follow Alex, the more we learn about the biological and psychological backgrounds of dragoning; the way we learn that earlier knowledge was only partially correct or just plain wrong. It lends and air of realism to this frankly bizarre idea that makes it feel completely normal to imagine a prom where a girl just grows wings and scales and takes off into the freedome she would otherwise be denied.
What starts out as a bonkers idea, a thinly-veiled metaphor for female rage, turns into a quite beautiful story. The reviewers who complained that “they’re feminists but this is just too much” may have disliked how Kelly Barnhill (at first!) describes these women literally breaking free from the constraints of their lives. It’s not a coincidence that in the Mass Dragoning, many of the dead or left behind husbands had been cheating, physically violent, or both. But Barnhill also shows us that there’s much more to her metaphor than simple rage.
While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been.
The suppression of knowledge is another big theme in this book, because without it, the country wouldn’t have been in half as much trouble as it ended up in. Much like sex or anything to do with the menstrual cycle, people in this book would rather pretend that these things don’t exist or at least aren’t talked about. Which obviously leads to people being shocked and surprised by what their own bodies can (and will) do.
Later in the book comes a point where it becomes impossible to pretend dragonings don’t happen, and what the world does instead of pretending they don’t exist, is treat dragons as outcasts, as dirty, dangerous, sick or something to be endured but certainly not accepted. I don’t know if that was Kelly Barnhill’s intention, but I kept thinking of the queer community when I read certain scenes and how small-minded people talked about dragons. Lesson: knowledge is good. Let’s not suppress it.
My notes on this book also say Librarians are the best and I’ll just leave that here without further explanation. 🙂
It all comes together beautifully in the end, and it does so while endearing these characters to us in a slow burn way that I didn’t see coming. I cried at the end because, although it’s not sugarcoated in any way, it is the perfect way for this story to go. And although in our universe, people can’t turn into dragons, I would wish for us to learn a little bit from this one.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!
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