When Women Were Dragons

The basic premise of this book by Kelly Barnhill is very simple: when women get sufficiently angry about their lot in society, they turn into dragons. Sometimes they just fly away and have fun. Sometimes they eat their annoying husbands. And if said husbands have been sufficiently unpleasant, they probably incinerate them instead. That’s entirely reasonable, right?

I mean, it is a great idea. But how the heck do you make a story out of it, let alone a whole novel?

That’s what wannabe writers get wrong. It isn’t a question of, “where do you get your ideas from?” Most writers have loads of good ideas. The hard bit is wrestling those ideas into the shape of a story or novel. And when the idea is as off-the-wall as this one, well, the writer has her work cut out.

The book is dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford, but it isn’t specifically about Trump-era America. It is set in the 1950s when McCarthyism is running riot and men who have returned from the war are keen to put women back where they “belong”. There’s a good reason for this because America at the time was in the grip of a collective delusion. Barnhill needs a society in which it is vaguely believable that large numbers of women turn into dragons and society at large decides to simply not talk about it, as if those women never existed. It is the sort of social control that would be the envy of Cultural Revolution era China, and far more effective for being largely voluntary.

So we have a possible setting, now we need a story. Barnhill’s narrator, Alex Green, is a child when dragonings start to happen, or at least come to the attention of the public. She loses her aunt in the Mass Dragoning of 1955, forcing her parents to adopt her baby cousin, Beatrice. Her mother is determined not to dragon, and to prevent the girls from doing so.

That, however, is hardly enough story for a novella. To make a novel, Barnhill has bulked the book out with a collection of worldbuilding infodumps in the form of scientific reports from one Henry Gantz, one of the few people to take the dragoning at face value and try to study it.

That is enough to give us a fairly short novel which is essentially an angry, if entirely justified, feminist rant.

It makes a good book in part because we come to care about Alex and Beatrice and their struggles in the face of stupid, arrogant men, and women who are afraid to tell them the truth. There is also some interesting development of the dragoning concept as the book goes on, though Barnhill is always fighting an uphill battle to make it believable.

Younger readers, I suspect, will find it hard to believe how much, “we don’t talk about such things” went on back then. The idea that a family would suddenly cut one of its members off, refuse to talk about that person ever again, and indeed insist that said person never existed, seems a bit bizarre. But it happened. Heck, all a girl had to do was get pregnant outside of marriage and she’d find herself shipped off to an asylum and written out of her family history.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen so much these days, at least in social groupings that I am familiar with. But there is one group of people to whom it is still routinely done: trans folk. Heck, when I started my transition in the 1990s, trans people were expected to disappear themselves, not to wait for their family to cut them out.

So reading When Women Were Dragons was a strange experience, because part of it felt very familiar. It wasn’t specifically about how society treats trans people, and yet it was, very much so. That, of course, brings anxiety, because this is a book in which women are able to do a thing (turn into dragons) and men cannot. Was it going to go all biological essentialist on me? Well, here’s a little comment from Henry Gantz, who has been talking to dragons to find out what sort of women were likely to transform.

It has nothing to do with menstruation – 232 of the dragons I interviewed were post-menopausal, and 109 had already undergone radical hysterectomies, and an astonishing 74 were women by choice, and by the great yearnings of their hearts, and were not labelled as such at birth, and yet are women all the same.

Reader, I cried.

And yes, Dr. Gantz has a very odd writing style. The whole book isn’t like that.

Barnhill clearly knows what she is talking about. Later in the book, a family group is talking about a young girl who is showing signs of dragoning.

“It’s just,” Jeanne said. She paused and pulled out an embroidered handkerchief. “It’s just we love her so much. We were adults when we changed. We knew what we were getting into. What if she changes her mind and can’t return?” She blew her nose in a tremendous roar.

I shrugged. “If there is one thing that […] knows, it’s her own mind. Always has. And if she gets stuck, that’s her nature asserting itself. If she can go back and forth, well maybe some children can go back and forth. Hell, maybe some women can. No one knows anything because no one is willing to talk about anything, so no one bothers to ask these questions, much less answer them.”

And that, dear reader, is the “trans debate” in a nutshell. People assert things to be true because they want them to be true, not because they have made any attempt to find out the actual truth, or even bothered to talk to anyone with actual lived experience of the issue.

So thank you, Ms. Barnhill, that was wonderful.

If I have a reservation about the book, it is because there is a whole story thread in there that ended up not being resolved. Alex’s mother is a mathematician. Not being allowed to use her talents in a job, she spends a lot of time doing things like crochet, and making elaborately knotted bracelets from string. There is a suggestion that she was doing this because she believed that the knots could somehow prevent dragoning. Dr. Gantz manages to find historical evidence for this belief. And yet neither he nor Alex (who inherits her mother’s mathematical talents) ever investigate this further. It is odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d love to know why.

book cover
Title: When Women Were Dragons
By: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Hot Key
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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