WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS – Kelly Barnhill

“Beatrice and I walked home in the snow, pulling the weight of my mother’s memories behind us.”

“There is a limit to how much we can hold, and how much we can keep in this world. It’s not a good idea to cling to the things you can’t bear to lose. That’s how we break, you see?”

“There are memories that we carry that are not our own.”

“I was four years old when I first saw a dragon.  I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons.  Perhaps this is how we learn silence -an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Kelly Barnhill tugged at my heart with her middle grade novel The Girl Who Drank The Moon, but her first adult novel, When Women Were Dragons (Doubleday 2022) was like a hug from a night sky or being kissed by flames – it roars with a fierce love for women, including women by birth and women by choice.  The novel is dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony “triggered this narrative.”

The novel starts with Alex’s first memory of a dragon.  She was four.  This was before the Mass Dragoning of 1955, and at a time when Alex’s mother had disappeared and her aunt Marla was caring for her.  As she grew up, Alex realized her mother was in the hospital battling cancer, but these months without her mother, and her mother’s fragile return, and this dragon are burned in Alex’s memory.

Aunt Marla is far too big for the box society is trying to put her in, yet she gets married and has a child because it’s what is expected of her.  (The greatest love of her life was a woman she flew planes with during the war.  Marla was supposed to dragon with her, but she didn’t – she held on to her skin for her sister.) Marla’s daughter, Beatrice, becomes the thing Alex loves most in the world.  After Marla dragoned during the Mass Dragoning of 1955, Alex’s mother never spoke of her again.  History was rewritten to erase Marla’s existence and to make Alex’s cousin Beatrice her sister.  But Alex never truly forgets.

In one of the more heartbreaking scenes (and there are several), Alex is playing with her only friend, Sonja.  Alex loves Sonja without being able to fully identify that love.  When her father encounters them during a sweetly intimate moment of discovery, he pulls them apart.  To further harden his daughter’s heart, he buys the house Sonja’s family is renting and evicts them. With Sonja gone, it’s just Alex and Beatrice again.  Alex quickly learns that the box society has created for women is not one she’s going to fit in, at least not quietly. She is adamant on the use of her masculine nickname and that she will go to college; her destiny will not mirror her mother’s.

The novel is a bildungsroman wrapped in magical realism and a history that oft forgot the women.  Chapters are broken up with scientific journals, letters, Congressional hearings, etc. related to the “dragoning phenomenon” that no one was allowed to speak of openly, at least not until the women returned and refused to be silenced or ignored.

It’s a novel about mothers and sisters and daughters.  Love and loss. Memories and mistakes.  Standing up and letting go.  Secrets and truth.  And dragons, it’s about dragons.

Read this book.

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