Set primarily in an alternative version of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Kelly Barnhill’s magnificent When Women Were Dragons tells many stories. There is the story of the mass dragoning of April 25, 1955, when over 642,987 mothers and wives stepped out of their human skins to live as dragons, and of the many dragonings before and after, mostly erased in a mass forgetting but meticulously recorded by one man who would not let the country forget. It is a story about a family raising its children on a strict code of silence. But mostly When Women Were Dragons is the story of Alexandra Green, who demands to be called Alex, and her coming of age within a culture based on repressing women and suppressing trauma. It is a story about memory, about outcasts, about oppression, about the power of women, about family, about choosing the life you want to live, and every bit of it is brilliantly written.
All the characters are sharply drawn and seen mostly through Alex’s eyes as she narrates the greater part of the novel. There is her ailing mother who has hidden away her great gifts in mathematics to have children and live under the rigidly silent and mostly absent husband who believes women should stay in the home. Her sister, Marly, is as big, brawny and full of life as Alex’s mother is small, slight and quiet. It is Marly who one day steps out of her skin as a dragon, devours her obtuse husband and flies away. She leaves behind her baby Beatrice who becomes Alex’s ‘sister’, as all mention of the girl’s parents is suppressed. Beatrice grows under Alex’s care and becomes an irrepressible free spirit, with a socially dangerous interest in dragons.
There is Mrs. Gyzinska, a librarian who feeds Alex’s insatiable curiosity and guides her at crucial moments of her life. And there is the patient scientist, Dr. Gantz, who pays a heavy price for daring to record and publicize the inescapable realities of dragoning, to the point of losing his career and being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee of the Congress. Speaking truth about the unshackled power of dragoning women and their impact on society is only met by repression and punishment as the country as a whole tries to forget its past.
Dragoning becomes the dominant metaphor for the radical freeing of women in all their power, but Alex’s life is conditioned by the example of her Aunt Marly. She escaped the bounds of her normal life but left behind a wrecked home and a daughter to be raised in a difficult household. And there is another driving force in Alex’s life that is brutally suppressed when she is a young girl. She becomes close friends with a neighbor, Sonja. The two are so inseparable and affectionate with each other that an enraged school principal as well as her father clamp down on the relationship. Not only is Alex forbidden to see Sonja, but her friend has to move away and disappears from Alex’s life, apparently forever.
For much of her life, Alex maintains a tight discipline, suppressing anger at great cost to herself, and following the routines that enable her and Beatrice to survive. For, after Alex’s mother dies of cancer, her father shunts the two girls off to an apartment to live totally on their own while he remarries. To keep a household going and ensure that Beatrice gets the schooling she needs, she has to schedule everything carefully and dares not indulge any fantasies. Science and math are her interests, and with Mrs. Gyzinska’s help she is able to overcome her father’s refusal to help her after the age of eighteen or pay for a college education.
Besides dragoning, there is another metaphor running through the story, and it’s about knots. Mrs. Green’s talent lay in topology and although she had to give up a career, she was a master at creating decorative knots. And these knots, in clothing, bracelets, curtains and everything made of cloth in her house, had a way every now and then of undoing themselves and recombining in new and intricate patterns. The metaphor comes up in many contexts.
“Time, in our experience, is linear, but in truth time is also looped. It is like a piece of yarn, in which each section of the strand twists and winds around every other—a complicated and complex knot, in which one part cannot be viewed out of context from the others. Everything touches everything else. Everything affects everything else. Each loop, each bend, each twist interacts with every other. It is all connected, and it is all one.”When Women Were Dragons, Kindle edition, Location 2374
Each “loop and bend” in the story captures the routines that Alex has to follow, knots that are undone by the powerful revelation of a force in her life that she can’t control. Sometimes they capture the weaving together of strands of a new life as Alex learns to accept her own emotions and the wildness that bursts out of the women around her. Mostly, this metaphor is understated, but it is a beautiful unifying element throughout the novel.
When Women Were Dragons is surely one of the best books of the past year and has the sort of lingering impact that makes me want to read it again. It is full of fine prose that carries ideas and images that strike at the core of emotional life. Here is a moment when Alex is trying to deal with anger.
“What does anger do? My mother was not an angry person. Or at least I don’t think she was. My aunt was so angry that it became too much for her own body. It destroyed her house and swallowed her husband and left a broken family behind. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t know what to do with my anger. I felt the world shake, and I felt my skin burn, and I let out a volcano of words that rattled my teeth as they came out.”When Women Were Dragons, Kindle edition, Location 3032
I could go on quoting from this novel, but instead I ask you to experience When Women Were Dragons for yourself. It’s an unforgettable blend of memories, discovery, learning about love, making choices and tying it all together in patterns that are sometimes harsh and violent, sometimes flowing and graceful, as a life begins to take shape amid a rigid yet wildly changing world.