Kelly Barnhill’s first adult novel, WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is a provocative fantasy that centers around an imaginary event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers sprouted wings and tails and took to the skies leaving a trail of fiery destruction in their wake. It was reportedly not the first Mass Dragoning, but it was the most recent, and each Mass Dragoning throughout history was subsequently followed by a Mass Forgetting. No one wanted to acknowledge what was happening; it was too frightening, too disquieting, and acknowledging what was happening threatened the stability of families and marriages throughout the land. It was better to forget.
When Alex Green’s beloved Aunt Marla transformed, she left behind an abusive husband, and unfortunately a young daughter, Beatrice. The family was not allowed to speak of it and in fact, Alex’s mother told her to forget her aunt ever existed and insisted that her cousin Beatrice was now her sister. Alex was taught to remain silent. She was taught not to upset the order of things. Alex loved her cousin/sister Beatrice more than anyone in the world, and that helped her to keep the silence, but still, she was very confused. Why did her aunt, a former airplane mechanic who married late in life, disappear and not her mother? Why was her father always working? And why was her mother, a brilliant mathematician compulsively tying knots all over the place?
When Alex entered high school, she was left alone to raise Beatrice; even after all the injustice heaped upon her, she still upheld her vow of silence. Rewriting history was invasive – starting in her home, then at her school, and eventually, within her. Fortunately for Alex, her neighborhood librarian took her under her wing and provided her with opportunities to study more than stenography and typing and envisioned a future for her that included a college degree.
As Beatrice grew, she became obsessed with dragons and the sheltered life that Alex had created for her was threatened. Alex would need to decide whether remaining silent was more dangerous to her and Beatrice’s well-being than embracing the truth.
Barnhill dedicated the book to Christine Blasey Ford, “whose testimony triggered this narrative.” It’s a propulsive read – one that begins with a slow burn and builds to a major conflagration. I could feel the women’s rage rise within me as I read until I felt that I, too, might explode, or dragon.
WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is an evocative tale about gender, gender roles, and the politicization of history. Barnhill has written a cautionary tale about what happens when women are silenced and their human right to make their own choices is taken from them.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Kelly Barnhill on June 23 at 7:00 pm on WTIP.org 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web.