— When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill, Doubleday (2022)
I came across When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill just after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The reviews indicated that it was a book about women’s rage, and also dragons. What’s not to love, I thought? I did indeed love it, but I was also surprised by the tender coming-of-age story about a grieving girl, and the powerful indictment of a society that tries to force its people to sweep their traumas under the carpet. This is a book I will be gifting to friends and one day, to my own daughter.
The novel imagines a 1950s America in which hundreds of thousands of angry, oppressed women spontaneously transform into dragons and take to the skies and the seas, leaving behind countless ruined families. Although there isn’t a single person unaffected by this “mass dragoning,” the phenomenon is heavily — and effectively — censored. It is “too embarrassing to look at. Too inappropriate. It’s dragons, after all – tainted, it would seem, with feminine stink. Such things are not discussed. Best forgotten, people said. People are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” The story of how this event and its cover-up transforms the country is mirrored in the life story of the narrator, Alex. She is a brilliant young girl whose mother dies, whose aunt dragons, whose father abandons her to raise her cousin (now her “sister”) on her own, and whose culture tells her just because she is female, she should “keep her eyes on the ground.”
Meanwhile, groups of scholars and scientists go underground to try to understand the phenomenon. But it is the 1950s, and those who question what happened (and continues to happen) to so many women are swiftly deemed “un-American,” condemned and blackballed. Just as Alex is forced to pretend that her aunt never existed and she has always had a sister (rather than a cousin), so too is America forced to pretend that there is no such thing as dragons. But there are unavoidable consequences to this kind of forgetting, and the trauma cannot remain hidden forever.
Here the novel has uncomfortable parallels with our lives today, even beyond the obvious theme of women’s rage. As one of the scholars explains in his history of dragons, the pages of which punctuate the larger story like a kind of found footage, “Men delight in nothing so much as to recast themselves in the center of the story. And throughout history, the bouts of female dragoning are almost universally followed by a collective refusal to accept incontrovertible facts, and a society-wide decision to forget verifiable events that are determined to be too alarming, too messy, too unsettling.” There are echoes here of our current times, of the disinformation that clouds our judgement, whether it’s abortion rights, vaccines, school shootings, or the legacies of slavery.
Barnhill weaves the ancient Greek story of Tithonus throughout the novel, in which Eos, goddess of dawn, asks Zeus to grant immortality to Tithonus, the human man she loves. Zeus does so, but Eos forgets to ask him to give Tithonus eternal youth as well. As a result, the man ages endlessly but never dies, becoming nothing but a shriveled cricket for the goddess to carry around in her pocket. Alex is haunted by this story which her mother loved so much, and as she watches those around her refuse to acknowledge the dragons, she wonders: “Does memory decay? Does it shrivel and dry up and collapse? Is it a cricket in the pocket of the goddess, alive only through the force of misplaced love?” Alex is musing on her grief for her mother, but her thoughts are actually a larger metaphor for what is going on all around her. In the America of the book, just as in the America of today, we cling so hard to our memories — but what is memory, really? Is it fallible and changeable and it is never, ever enough. Just as Alex comes of age by asking these questions, so must the country.
This novel is the best kind of magical realism, in that the presence of dragons feels somehow completely natural. And its ultimate lesson will stick with me, and I hope for all the other readers who find themselves immersed in this beautiful story: that “embarrassment, as it turns out, is more powerful than information. And shame is the enemy of truth.” For those who would typically avoid any genre including these great winged beasts, I encourage you to try this novel anyway — unfortunately, it does not require nearly as much suspension of disbelief as you might imagine.
Review by: Danielle Johnson. Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson