Review of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
The premise of When Women Were Dragons is exquisite, the strong-woman elements are irresistible, and despite what felt like slow pacing while historical accounts are shared and disputed, I loved the heart of this book.
We thought there weren't any dragons. And then there were. We thought the dragons were gone. And now here they are. Any choice we think we have in the matter is an illusion.
In Kelly Barnhill's When Women Were Dragons, a historic event has occurred but is being denied by the government and historians alike: a Mass Dragoning, in which thousands of women transformed into dragons on one day in 1955.
Through various preserved historic accounts and young Alexandra Green's observations, the reader begins to understand that women in Alex's world (she lives in an alternate Wisconsin) may, in moments of intense joy or fury, choose to transform into dragons, take to the sky, and find their freedom. Sometimes disappointing husbands or bosses are eaten or incinerated, casualties of the situation.
This is a gloriously feminist tale in which women force the world to consider rethinking their roles and worth by taking control and power and by making underestimating, smug men and meek women alike fear their wrath.
I will bring up the issue of dragons again, so brace yourself.... I want you to notice that your feelings are complicated by cultural factors that are, let's face it, a little ridiculous. There are people who have problems with women, and alas, many of them are also women. That is because of something called the patriarchy, which I'm sure they have not discussed in that school you go to....
The premise and the woman-power setup is exquisite, but it takes a while for things to get going in When Women Were Dragons. Much of the book is focused on reviewing accounts of what may or may not have happened, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. This was interesting background but felt slow to me (get to the DRAGONING already!). I wanted more more more about the dragons.
It's necessary for the plot for Alex to wait an interminably long time to review mystery items she is given by treasured people in her life. Even when these individuals then disappear, Alex doesn't feel the impetus to explore their letters or a mystery box left behind. This was frustrating and also felt implausible.
As for the other characters, Alex's father is pure negligence and willful ineptitude, and he feels too easy to hate. Her mother subsumes herself into marriage and motherhood, with disastrous results, while her strong, wonderfully unorthodox aunt falters only when she temporarily does the same. Beatrice follows her heart, and her strong spirit guides her without fail. The wisest adult in Alex's life offers wisdom, savviness, and kindness, and I loved that she was a powerful librarian. There's LGBTQ representation here as well.
I adore the premise of women having the option of "dragoning" when they experience rage or intense joy--and also that they have agency; they may choose to transform, to leave, to seek greater freedom--or they may opt to bide their time.
When Women Were Dragons feels like the perfect book to read if you're a woman frustrated by recent changes in our rights; or if you're any reader frustrated or concerned about women's safety and respect; or if you just like tales about powerful females. It's an "I am woman, hear me roar (literally!)" book.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Kelly Barnhill is also the author of books for young readers including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Iron Hearted Violet, The Witch's Boy, and others.