If I had been in sixth grade when I had read Kelly Barnhill When women were dragons, I would have hung a poster of the cover in my bedroom. It features feminists, dragons, and fantasy worlds in a heartwarming font that envelops you in perfectly ordered chapters and beautifully tailored paragraphs. In other words, it’s a warm hug for troubled teenage girls and adult women.
I wasn’t quite sure that would be the case when I started. There is a blatant “underdog.” Unleashed. Reborn. on the front cover with the title in a slightly flashy font, all on a dark green-purple background, and an open dragon’s eye in the lower left. Sometimes it’s confusing not to judge books by their covers. But I’m glad I opened it, and even happier that I let him invite me once I started reading.
Dragons and “dragonization”
The plot of When women were dragons is quite simple. Set in the mid-1950s, the book follows protagonist Alex as she navigates the struggles of growing up as a girl in the 1950s. They’re mostly the same age, at least as far as tropes go. – absent father, sick mother, schoolwork, loving a daughter in a homophobic world, being seen with constant scrutiny and disdain as a woman, and dealing with the confusing and chaotic feelings that growing up entails. Plus, of course, there’s the issue of dragons. Dragons and “dragoning” – the process by which a woman spontaneously converts into a dragon and flies away leaving behind her family and her old world – are embarrassing things, treated much like menstruation, that society attempts constantly sweeping under the rug, and eventually, of course, stumbles. Alex struggles with the people she loves leaving her, trying her best to fit in.
But as basic as the plot initially seems, its execution is fantastic. Barnhill’s talent for world-building shines impressively. Trusting your story, writing a world as if you lived and breathed it is an expected foundation, but seeing it dominate itself so well was a charming experience. I didn’t want the illusion to end, and given the choice, I would absolutely live in this world where I could dragon almost at will.
While that may say something about me, it says a lot more about how inviting the world of Barnhill is. She intricately mixes the act of dragooning and, more importantly, the desire to dragoon and its consequent suppression in the “real” world through Alex. The book might be a little longer than the plot might have felt necessary, and that might be a result of the shedding of world-building details that are minimally boring or unnecessary. Barnhill leaves nothing to chance.
A clearly, undoubtedly feminist reading
“Outside, my mother smiled and my father smiled, and Beatrice and I learned to radiate happiness without thinking of anything.” The dragoning itself is, of course, wonderful. What caught my attention in When we were dragons, however, weren’t the flashy bits, but the protagonist herself, churning violently through her routine as others around her learn to let go, defend themselves, or spread their wings. It’s the fantasy version of a modern-day girl who’s too embarrassed to call herself a feminist and ends up suffocating.
Hardworking as she is, there is no grandeur in Alex’s thoughts or reactions. The protagonist of the book is not really heroic at all. She does nothing but live her own life. And maybe that’s why it’s so easy for the reader to adapt to her – she’s a perfectly passive narrator, taking what she gets and doing what she can.
The book is clearly, without a doubt, a feminist read, all about women finally taking the place they deserve and letting go of what they were meant to do. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, which made me a bit bored, but, again, When women were dragons is less about the story itself, and much more about how it is told.
I will leaf through the book again sometimes, if only for the comforting familiarity of the voice, for it to take me back to a feminist sixth-grade utopia where hope still existed and there was never a desire to be numb. The plot continues to play with the knots – his mother was obsessed with them, their complexities, their mathematical implications and their abilities. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the tangles that Barnhill creates itself. Whereas When women were dragons has its flaws – its length, an excess of detail that may or may not work, and “scientific” articles that lose a bit of flavor – oh, it’s fun. It is a relief. It’s like being a dragon.
When women were dragonsKelly Barnhill, Bonnier.