Marvelous Flights: A Review of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Marvelous Flights: A Review of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Jeremy Brett

Under Review:
When Women Were Dragons. Kelly Barnhill. Doubleday Books, May 2022.

Some women already resemble dragons, it seems to me – fierce, desiring to fly free, too big to be ignored – but here comes Kelly Barnhill with her new novel When Women Were Dragons to bring the figurative to literal life. It’s one of those novels whose concept sounds almost risible when laid out in black in white: in 1955, the United States is suddenly hit by what is called the “Mass Dragoning”: the sudden, unexplained transformation of hundreds of thousands of women into dragons. Dragons that – in many cases after bringing a violent end to husbands, bosses, and other male figures – fly off, never to be seen again, leaving behind loved ones and divided communities. 

Barnhill’s genius is taking what seems like it would make for a lighthearted fantasy-comedy and investing it with social consciousness, a strong feminist sensibility, and heartfelt ferocity. Her story of the social and personal fallout from this shattering event is passionately, emotionally written, and has a sense of honest realism. In fact, one of the most striking things about the novel (and at the same time, one of the saddest) is that the fantastic element of the situation becomes less and less fantastical as the story goes on. As we see governmental, social, and medical authorities clamping down on honest discussion, or even acknowledgment, of the dragoning phenomenon (which continues to happen in less dramatic, more individual instances across the country); the erasure of the missing women from family and community memory; and the refusal by many to accept those dragons that do return… In this new age of right-wing destruction of reproductive rights, of conservative attempts to cleanse African-American history from the historical record, of ongoing societal hostility against women, against LGBT individuals, and, indeed, against anyone who deviates from accepted societal norms, it’s all a little too familiar. In the best speculative fiction tradition, Barnhill has trained a fantastical lens on the commonalities of both our real present and our recent, stifling past to which too many people wish to return us.

The story’s narrator is Alex Green, through whom we see the full, toxic impact of hostile reactions to the 1955 Dragoning. Her mother is emotionally and physically fragile, her father emotionally distant. Alex’s aunt Marla, a redoubtable queer woman, is transformed into a dragon on the Great Day, leaving behind a daughter, Alex’s cousin Beatrice. Beatrice is adopted into the family as Alex’s sister, her mother and origins never to be spoken of. The bulk of the novel is concerned with the shrinking of Alex’s world into a societally manageable shape, as she struggles with the overwhelming sense of denial that hangs over her life, her family, and her nation. Then, as the dragons begin to return to pick up the lives they left behind or desired when they were human women, we see Alex’s world grow immensely. She pursues her hopes, her dreams, her loves, and she comes to understand the crucial human significance of remembrance and the truths we owe to ourselves and each other. As she notes during a reverie in her old age, long after dragons have been integrated into American society:

Memory is a strange thing. It reorganizes and connects. It provides context and clarity; it reveals patterns and divergences. It finds the holes in the universe and stitches them closed, tying the threads together in a tight, unbreakable knot. I learned this from my mother. And now I will teach it to you.

Ironically, in reviewing a novel about the experiences of women, I leave the last word to a male character – Dr. Henry Gantz, a scientific authority on the dragoning phenomenon. At the height of the anti-dragon hysteria, he had been forced into internal exile while helping to direct the underground Wyvern Research Collective, a covert effort at circumventing the official policy of silence and denial through education and scientific research. By novel’s end, as dragons have become increasingly normalized into American society in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Gantz has returned to public life. His impassioned 1967 speech before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (which in the novel helps lead government anti-dragon efforts) reads in part:

You have brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened. This, my friends, is an impossibility. While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been. The dragons are here to stay. Let us remember everything that brought us to this moment. Let us remember all those we have lost. Let us remember our loved ones as they were so that we may accept them as they are, just as we accept our country – changed, flawed, and growing – as it now is. Just as we must accept the world.

Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous. 

It is indeed marvelous. Quite as marvelous as Barnhill’s novel, which is a powerful, beautiful testament to the vital power of women to endure, to control and direct their own lives, and to be who they choose to be in the face of opposition, as well as the necessity of memory and an honest reckoning of our choices and decisions. 

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an archivist and librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This is an ongoing series commissioned by ARB’s founding editors. This review was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange a review copy.

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