‘When Women Were Dragons’ imagines a fiery response to female suppression

In an age of conformism, 700,000 women transform into fiery beasts, in Kelly Barnhill’s fantastical novel, “When Women Were Dragons.”

"When Women Were Dragons," by Kelly Barnhill, Doubleday, 352 pp.

Newbery award winner Kelly Barnhill’s first novel for adults, “When Women Were Dragons,” opens with a brief but fiery blast. Tucked between title page and epigraph, the dedication reads, “For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative.”

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Barnhill shares that the book’s kernel came to her while listening to the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings with her middle-school daughter. “I was so mad,” she says. She decided then and there to write a book about “a bunch of 1950s housewives who turn into dragons.” This isn’t as odd as it may sound. Barnhill concurrently released a book for young adults, “The Ogress and the Orphans,” that includes dragons. These fiery, powerful beasts were on the brain.

Barnhill admits that she never thought she’d write a book for adults. “They need everything explained to them.” So, prepare to suspend belief and dive into a world both familiar and fantastical, full of high heels and sweater sets, but also claws, smoke, and very big hearts.

The book launches with a bang. In 1955 nearly 700,000 American wives and mothers turn into dragons and take to the skies. According to one of the few scientists brave (and underground) enough to study the phenomenon, this isn’t the first time “dragoning” has happened, nor will it be the last. Yet scientists eager to investigate risk losing their labs – and their reputations. The culprit? A combination of shell-shock, squeamishness, and fear of the unknown has left many politicians, civic leaders, teachers, and parents eager to move on. 

The narrative unfolds through the recollections of Alex Green, a self-described “Physicist, Professor, Activist. Still Human,” as she looks back on her life in a Wisconsin town during this tamped-down time. From an early age, Alex senses that there are questions one does not ask and emotions one should not feel – lessons straight from her enigmatic, tight-lipped mother. 

One summer afternoon in 1951, strange sounds draw 4-year-old Alex to the nearby backyard of a kind old lady. Between the tomatoes and the shed sits an astonished-looking dragon. Alex, fascinated and fearless, demands to know where her friend has gone; in response, the beast winks, unfurls her wings, and leaps into the clouds.  

Alex never discusses the encounter, sensing that neither her mother nor the wider world would welcome the news. “Perhaps this is how we learn silence,” she muses.

Her reluctance is understandable. Dragoning, per the scant scientific research, only happens to women, giving it the squirmy taboo status that cloaks other “female matters,” particularly in 1950s’ America. It’s also linked to unexpressed rage and confinement. While some women can resist the urge to change (including Alex’s mother, at once physically frail and fiercely resolute), many others, often mid-argument or post-indignity, succumb.   

When Alex is 8, the Mass Dragoning event sweeps America. Among the scaled and sky-bound is her Aunt Marla, a former WAC pilot, skilled mechanic, and miserable wife, whose joyful toddler Beatrice is, in Alex’s eyes, “the most wonderful human to ever exist.” The family’s response to Marla’s disappearance echoes that of the discomfited country: silence, denials, and distortions take hold. Marla’s name becomes verboten, and Beatrice, ash-covered and rescued, declared Alex’s sibling. 

Dumbfounded, Alex swallows her questions and goes along with the ruse. She adores her buoyant sprite of a “sister”; besides, she has work to do: Unlike the other girls in her class, Alex is determined to make it to college and study physics. 

How the girls survive the conformist pressures and prejudices of their small-minded town would be sufficiently gripping thanks to Barnhill’s skills at developing complex, empathetic characters. Against the backdrop of increased dragoning episodes and their social havoc (particularly as the dragons mysteriously begin to return from wherever they went), the girls’ saga is ablaze with possibilities not typically available for land- and body-bound souls.  

Barnhill’s poetic prose offers small delights amid the inevitable sorrows and injustices of the story. A humid Wisconsin afternoon is “one of those days when thunderstorms linger just at the edge of the sky, hulking in raggedy murmurs for hours, waiting to bring in their whirlwinds of opposites.” Also effective is her tactic of scattering transcripts, news articles, scholarship, and other documents throughout the narrative to propel the plot and cast a shimmer of veritas on the proceedings. 

The novel’s central questions and concerns link it to today. The suffocating silence concerning all things female exacts a high price, not simply on women, but on all of society’s members. The welcome truth, as Barnhill sees it, is that the urge to transform can’t be contained – whether that change is physical and fire-breathing, or mental and emotional. As one character admits, “I want to be bigger than myself.”

The book’s resolution is broad and hopeful — like the dragoned women who, curious and now confident, fly back to earth to see what they’ve missed and how they can help.

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