When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
At first, as I was reading this, I thought I would give it four stars or perhaps even 5. It's beautifully written and deals with some pretty heavy themes: oppression, feminism, love and loss, mothers and daughters, and the stifling lives of women in the 1950's, before the feminist revolution really took hold. But gradually something about the setup began bothering me. Finally, about two-thirds of the way through, I had a sudden insight: I'll bet nearly every one of these characters is white. There was precious little description along that line, which is a strike against the book in and of itself; I believe each character in a book should have skin tone described, along with hair and eye color, to get away from the more or less standard white-as-default. But once I made that connection, what was bothering me clicked into place, and it revealed some deep structural problems with the worldbuilding and premise.
The setup for this fantasy/magical realist alternate history is that mid-20th century, according to the jacket copy, a "seminal event" took place: "the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their paths; and took to the skies." There is never any explanation given for this; it just happened, and the country has to deal with the fallout. Except they don't, until most of the way through the book when the dragoned begin to return. This initial event is swept under the rug, studying it is banned, and it becomes Something We Don't Talk About. Of course, a reaction like this could only take place long before the rise of the internet, but as the book goes on it also becomes clear that it could only happen during the decade of the 50's: that post-war period of expansion, the Cold War, the paranoia around communism, and the burgeoning civil rights movement. (The absence of any discussion about that tipped me to this novel's focus, because as far as the narrator was concerned, Rosa Parks didn't exist.)
To put it bluntly: This is a story of white suburban women, and white surburban women turning into dragons, and that thought throws a (heh) dragon-sized monkey wrench into the entire idea.
It wouldn't have mattered so much if the "Mass Dragoning" had been presented as the first time, or nearly the first time, such a thing had happened. But it wasn't. There are chapter breaks written to give the history of the phenomenon, written by a Professor H.N. Gantz, which purport to show "twenty-five discrete historical examples of mass dragoning." The author tries to handwave away her worldbuilding mistakes by saying a "mass forgetting" follows each mass dragoning, documented as "a collective refusal to accept incontrovertible facts, and a society-wide decision to forget verifiable events that are determined to be too alarming, too messy, too unsettling." (pp. 19-20)
That explanation, however, simply does not hold water, and the reasons are due to the nature of the mass dragoning as presented. In almost every case, it was due to a reaction of an oppressive society ("the explosion and resulting fire occurred on the very day the female factory workers learned that they would soon be losing their jobs"), domestic violence ("Her husband had been an officer in the European theater. A hard man, everyone said. Ill-equipped for civilian life. Neighbors whispered that his return wasn't going very well") , harassment ("There had been, prior to the event in question, numerous complaints filed regarding the behavior of a certain nighttime supervisor...In the end, nothing happened. Kind men patted pretty little heads and cases closed. Martin O'Leary and his rapacious smile remained in place, and the employees had reportedly been told that they should simply steel themselves against any advances, to look to the example of the cleverest of mice who always know how to avoid the marauding cat. They were told to count themselves lucky to be in a job at all"), and other reasons that boil down to female rage against oppression and discrimination that manifests itself as a physical transformation when the women involved can take no more. Which was the last straw for me, because if women were to start turning into dragons as a reaction to the reprehensible behavior of the men in their lives and the societies they lived in...the phenomenon would not be an occasional happenstance. It would have happened throughout history, and it would have reshaped our world from the inside out.
For example, just to talk about American history, what would female slaves have done? They would have dragoned and burned those cotton fields and plantations to the ground. Native women would have dragoned and charred the U.S. Army, and George Armstrong Custer and Andrew Jackson would have floated away to the heavens as bits of ash. Hell, Christopher Columbus wouldn't have lasted five minutes in the Bahamas--the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria would have been burned and sunk once Columbus started enslaving and murdering the native people. African, Indian (as in the continent) and Chinese women would have driven European colonizers away in gouts of flame, and the Amazons, if they existed (arguably there is reason to believe they did) would have flamed a broad swathe through ancient Greece.
In short, the world would be utterly unlike the one presented in this book. On page 207, one of the characters discusses "the patriarchy" with the protagonist Alex Green. This grated on me when I first read it and even more so when I finished the book--because if the author had truly thought out and followed through on her basic premise, there would have been no patriarchy. It would have been burned away thousands of years earlier.
And we sure as heck wouldn't have gotten a narrowly tailored, severely flawed narrative that doesn't even touch on race, and becomes pretty much Just Another White Lady's Tale of Woe.
Which is not to say the book is completely irredeemable. As I said, it is beautifully written, and the main character has some profound things to say about finding one's place and family, throwing off society's shackles, and living the life a woman wants to live, unrestrained and undisturbed by the smallness and pettiness of (some) men. The final chapter is lovely, and goes some way towards--not redeeming, or canceling out, but providing somewhat of a counterpoint to all the mistakes that came before. In the end, that wasn't enough for me and couldn't erase my disappointment. I really wish the author had gone back to the drawing board and ruthlessly pursued the implications of her world to their logical conclusions. Of course, the book then produced would have been completely unlike this one. Still, with the author's evident skill with her craft, I would far rather have read that book.
View all my reviews