Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin), 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult; Speculative Fiction
Started: May 6, 2022
Finished: May 8, 2022
From the inside cover:
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 paths, 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 Alex's mother did not? No one knows. It's taboo to speak of it.
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; their upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Beatrice 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 keeps women small - their lives and their prospects - and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.
"I said that your mother was magic...this isn't new information, and your mother isn't alone. All women are magic. Literally all of us. It's in our nature. It's best you learn that now." (Barnhill, pg. 29-30)
"Anger is a funny thing. And it does funny things to us if we keep it inside...Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?" (Barnhill, pg. 208)
I've read this author's middle-grade novels Iron-Hearted Violet, The Witch's Boy, and her Newbery Award-winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon; so when I found out she'd written an adult novel after so many years I was excited to pick this up. To say I was impressed is an understatement, I couldn't put this down and think When Women Were Dragons is my new favourite out of everything she's written.
Alex lives in suburban Wisconsin in the 1950s and because she's a good girl, there's many things she just doesn't speak about: menstruation, her mother's cancer, her growing attraction to her friend Sonja, the anger she feels when she's dismissed by the men around her, and the fact that some women turn into dragons.
When Alex is eight in the spring of 1955, over half a million women across the country turn into dragons and leave their families behind. Alex's aunt, Marla, is one of those women, leaving behind a job she enjoys (though she's not often appreciated for her superior skills), a dead husband, and an orphaned baby daughter who quickly and irrefutably becomes Alex's sister instead of her cousin. Marla is soon erased from existence, and no one speaks of the dragons afterwards. When Alex's mother dies years later, and teenaged Alex is left to raise Beatrice by herself after being abandoned by her father, she slowly begins to question everything she's been taught: that dragoning is a conscious choice, that the women who dragoned were bad wives and mothers for making that choice, and that they're never coming back.
This book is told from Alex's point of view as an adult looking back on her childhood. Interspersed with those chapters are letters, newspaper articles, redacted scientific studies and articles, and government documents that show just how much dragoning event itself and the aftermath is silenced by the government throughout the ages.
This novel is indeed timely. Even though it takes place in 1950s white suburbia, the premise and theme that things kept hidden and shamed instead of openly discussing and welcoming is immensely relatable and applicable to more than meets the eye. The dragon metaphor itself appears at first to just represent female rage, but it can be an allegory for almost anything: sex/gender, race, queerness, disability, neurodiversity, it can be read under a number of lenses and works so well.
Drop everything and go read this, just trust me, you won't be disappointed. I'll be buying a few of these as gifts for people this year for sure.
Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the dragon blends in with the plants and flowers, it reminds me of the scene where Alex's mom plants the garden in the summer. The purple and green colour scheme is nicely appealing too.