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A devastatingly powerful coming-of-age novel about the rage of women who rise up and refuse to be silenced
Otherworldly, yet rooted in patriarchal realities, Kelly Barnhill‘s When Women Were Dragons is a storytelling masterwork. Set from the 1950s, it presents a magnificent maelstrom of fire-breathing women who refuse to keep quiet, exposing the trauma of enforced silence, and shining a blazing light on how vital it is to transcend imposed shame and live your own way.
“I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence — an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be”. So shares Alex, the narrator of this brilliant novel, who lives at a time when adults remember the “mass dragoning” of women that occurred on 25th April 1955, but never mention it. Alex’s aunt Marla was among those who rose up and transformed into a dragon, but it’s as if she never existed. Marla is never spoken of again - not by Alex’s sick mother, and not by Alex’s father, who leaves her to raise Marla’s daughter Beatrice.
Before her transformation and vanishing, Marla told Alex that, “All women are magic. Literally all of us. It’s in our nature. It’s best you learn that now”. Fearing little Beatrice won’t be able to resist her powerful urges to dragon, Alex shuns any such notions, and silences Beatrice’s talk of dragons. But librarian Mrs Gyzinska, who supports Alex’s plan to become a mathematician, shares her learned insights, and frames the phenomenon of dragoning in the context of patriarchy: “There are people who have problems with women, and alas, many of them are also women. That is because of something called the patriarchy… an unnecessary and oppressive obstacle, and best disposed of as soon as possible.”
As Alex grapples with tremendous conflicts and prejudice, we’re presented with a spectacular prom scene, a tense but glorious reunion, a beautiful love of a lifetime, and glorious sisterhood. What a story.
I wrote this book by accident, during a rather grim period in American history. We had an unrepentant misogynist in the White House, and a Congress and several Legislatures who all seemed hell-bent on attacking the rights of women to our basic autonomy and bodily integrity. Like a lot of my fellow Americans, I knitted pink hats, and donated to every cause I could think of, and marched through the streets holding signs, absolutely gripped by the unrelenting crush of terrible news scrolling across the screen of my phone. I had acclimated myself to a near-constant state of blazing rage and crushing despair. And then, in September 2018, the United States Senate began considering the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and our nation, for the first time, met the woman who accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford.
I remember that day with merciless clarity. I was in the car with my daughter, a high-school junior at the time, listening to Christine Blasey Ford bravely and resolutely testifying to the United States Senate. We both hung on her every word, barely breathing, as Ms Ford’s voice filled my minivan. I realized as we drove that I was my daughter’s exact same age when Anita Hill also took that same stand in front of a room full of Senators. I remembered how galvanizing that moment was for me as a teenager, how it lit a fire at the center of my brain, just as it was, right now, lighting a fire inside of my child. I realized with a start that here we were, a full generation later, talking about the same damn thing, and that once again, the poise and courage and forthright testimony of a woman speaking the truth would have no power against of the petulant yawp of an aggrieved man. I felt frustrated and upset and ashamed of my country. And hopeless, too.
Finally, when we arrived at our destination, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and then said, ‘Darling, I don’t want you to be scared, but your mom is going to yell and swear a lot for a minute or two.’ And I unleashed a torrent of screaming profanity as my child held my hand. ‘Are you okay, Mom?’ she asked after I had finished. ‘Yeah,’ I said, squeezing her hand. ‘Sometimes, feelings are too big to fit inside your body or inside your life. Sometimes I feel like a supernova trapped in a minivan.’ ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she said. ‘The whole world is too small.’ She got out and I drove home, feeling as though my bones had burst into flames. I decided right then that I was going to write a story about rage. That I would write about a bunch of 1950s housewives who turned into dragons and ate their husbands in a torrent of frustration and rage and fire and largeness. The very thought felt satisfying. And cathartic. I wanted a dragon to eat Brett Kavanaugh. And the bloviating, red-faced Senators. And the boys who laughed while Christine Blasey Ford was assaulted. I wanted a dragon to eat any man who touched where he was not invited and who took what was not his.
Stories are funny things – they have minds of their own. The story very quickly informed me that it wanted to be a novel. Who was I to argue? I thought I was writing a story about rage, but it turns out that wasn’t true. This is a story about memory, and trauma. It’s about the damage we do to ourselves and our community when we refuse to talk about the past. I thought I was writing about a bunch of 1950s housewives who turned into dragons and ate their husbands. While those women certainly are in this book, it isn’t about them. It’s about a girl named Alex who grows up in a world upended by trauma and shamed into silence. It’s also a story about Alex’s boundless love, her resiliency, her quest for autonomy and self-determination, and her insistence on living a life on her own terms, speaking truthfully whatever the consequence. She is not based on Christine Blasey Ford, but she would not have existed without that woman’s bravery, her calm adherence to the facts, and her willingness to relive one of the worst moments of her life to help America save itself from itself. Her actions didn’t work, but they still mattered. And maybe that’s enough, in our fervent hope that the next generation gets it right.
I hope you enjoy it.
With boundless love and affection, Kelly Barnhill
In a world where girls and women are taught to be quiet, the dragons inside them are about to be set free ... In this timely and timeless speculative novel, set in 1950s America, Kelly Barnhill exposes a world that wants to keep girls and women small - and examines what happens when they rise up. Alex Green is four years old when she first sees a dragon. In her next-door neighbour's garden, in the spot where the old lady usually sits, is a huge dragon, an astonished expression on its face before it opens its wings and soars away across the rooftops. And Alex doesn't see the little old lady after that. No one mentions her. It's as if she's never existed.
Then Alex's mother disappears, and reappears a week later, one quiet Tuesday, with no explanation whatsoever as to where she has been. But she is a ghostly shadow of her former self, and with scars across her body - wide, deep burns, as though she had been attacked by a monster who breathed fire. Alex, growing from young girl to fiercely independent teenager, is desperate for answers, but doesn't get any. Whether anyone likes it or not, the Mass Dragoning is coming. And nothing will be the same after that. Everything is about to change, forever. And when it does, this, too, will be unmentionable...
In this soaring coming-of-age novel, Alex brings up her younger cousin Beatrice, awakening to independence, feminism and identity as she navigates Bea's urge to dragon . Fans of modern feminist classics such as The Power will find much to admire here; for teenage readers and beyond. -- Fiona Noble - The Observer
Ferociously imagined, incandescent with feeling, this book is urgent and necessary and as exhilarating as a ride on dragonback. -- Lev Grossman
Completely fierce, unmistakably feminist, and subversively funny, When Women Were Dragons brings the heat to misogyny with glorious imagination and talon-sharp prose. Check the skies tonight - you might just see your mother. -- Bonnie Garmus
In lesser hands the dragon metaphor would feel simplistic and general, but Barnhill uses it to imagine different ways of living, loving, and caring for each other. The result is a complex, heartfelt story about following your heart and opening your mind to new possibilities. This novel's magic goes far beyond the dragons. - Kirkus, Starred Review
Such a divine book. Had me hooked from the author's introduction, incredible to have such a moving inspiration following the story the whole way through! Barnhill has such a way with words, Alex was such a clear and easy character to read and Beatrice was incredibly vibrant, too! Literally couldn't give higher praise. -- Rowan Maddock, Bookseller - NetGalley
|Publication date:||3rd May 2022|
|Publisher:||Hot Key Books|
|Year Groups:||Key Stage 4|
|Topics:||Gritty Reads, Politics & Law|
Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children. She is the author of four novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the Newbery Medal. for the year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The Witch's Boy received four starred reviews and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. She is also the winner of a World Fantasy Award and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She has also been a finalist for the NCTE Charlotte Huck Award, the SFWA Andre Norton Award, and the PEN/USA literary prize. ...More About Kelly Barnhill