Book Review: When Women Were Dragons

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: When Women Were DragonsWhen Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2022
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Coming of Age, Feminist
Pages: 352
Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or
Find on Goodreads
Source: NetGalley

A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman's place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. - The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: 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 path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex's beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn't know. It's taboo to speak of.
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.
In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small--their lives and their prospects--and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.

Have you ever read a book that you didn’t know you needed in your life until you read it? That was my experience with When Women Were Dragons, which so effortlessly and eloquently captured the unique experience of being a woman, with all of its societal challenges, that my soul felt soothed. Added to this much-needed perspective, which chronicles the struggle of being a young woman in the 1950s, is the magic of a young girl finding her way in a world where women quite literally transform into dragons. 


“This isn’t new information, and your mother isn’t alone. All women are magic. Literally all of us. It’s in our nature. It’s best you learn that now.”


Reading When Women Were Dragons is so much more than simply sitting down to read a novel—it’s a whole magical experience. I have not encountered a novel that has moved me this much since To Kill A Mockingbird, which also features a young girl, unlike others, who struggles to grasp understanding in a world that seems inextricably without it. I adore this novel and honestly feel it should be required reading in high schools, as it captures the more often that not unseen struggle of women to persist in a world that doesn’t appreciate or value them. 


The author, Kelly Barnhill, brilliantly displays this struggle by women spontaneously transforming into dragons in the 1950s, challenging the ubiquitous societal beliefs of the woman’s place being in the home. To further highlight the societal stigma of the “dragoning” women, the author ingeniously includes propaganda from the time period, newspaper clippings, scientific articles, court proceedings, and the like, depicting how “dragoning” becomes a shameful, purely feminine evolution that is not to be spoken of at all costs. This scandalous topic is silenced on every scale, with those daring to study it scientifically or to enact policies unceremoniously discredited and fired.


“Enough time had passed since the Mass Dragoning that mentions of dragons had become, one again, simply out-of-bounds, an off-limits topic for any polite conversation. This was not just true in my home. Dragons were a subject avoided in any context. One would sooner arrive at church in one’s underpants, or discuss menstruation with the mail man or chat about sex on the radio. It simply wasn’t done.”


Luckily for readers, narrator Alexandra “Alex,” is perfectly poised to detail the events of the Mass Dragoning, which happened when she was nine and wrought huge changes in her home life. When Women Were Dragons not only captures the struggle of a young girl to deal with the repercussions of women growing wings and taking to the skies, but the just as damaging ramifications of daring to be different in the 1950s, losing loved ones, gaining responsibility, and longing for something more. There are strong messages of solidarity among women, fighting for one’s happiness, and found family, all while tackling the pervasive and wicked weight of the patriarchy and societal expectations. It’s the perfect blend of a coming-of-age story and a feminist love letter to all those who support women, with a great sense of humor sprinkled on top. Readers will also delight in a queer awakening, as well as other romances and marriages that stray from the typical cookie-cutter. 


The only reason I didn’t rate this book, which I love, 5 stars, is because I felt the ending was inordinately short! When Women Were Dragons wraps up with a time skip, which I found really jarring. Surely there had to be more, right? But I was wrong. I suppose the aim of this post time skip ending was to show the full life cycle of a happy and fulfilled woman, as well as her accomplishments, but it felt unequivocally rushed in contrast to the length of time spent getting our narrator through high school. In what felt like a blink of the eye, Alex was an old woman, who had supposedly been happily married and had a very successful career, among other things. But tragically, and rather bizarrely, she accomplished all of these things off the page.


I was very sad that I didn’t get to witness Alex’s feats firsthand and I felt it was somewhat egregious in a feminist novel to brush over the accomplishments of its main female protagonist and other of its female characters, something which happens innumerably in our society and is even mentioned multiple times in the novel as something entirely unacceptable:


“Of course, everyone is very proud of your accomplishments. But you see, this is part of the problem. We’ve had to stop posting the exam scores, because the boys see her loafing in class, and yet still claiming that top score, with no thought at all to their feelings. I ask you, what does one do with a girl with so little regard for others?”


Though I suppose the true message of When Women Were Dragons is that as long as a woman is satisfied, it doesn’t matter if society recognizes or celebrates them, it still felt like an odd narrative choice to spend so much time on the journey and not the destination, aka when our narrator was at her happiest and most fulfilled. Instead, we skipped ahead of these hard-earned chapters of her life and found Alex as an elderly woman living by herself, with only references to her time as physicist, wife, and more. I was disappointed not to be able to celebrate these successes with Alex, especially because what little was revealed of her personal happiness and achievements was merely mentioned in passing. Though When Women Were Dragons informs readers that the narrator is happy, it’s utterly disappointing, not to mention ungratifying, to be robbed of witnessing the culmination of Alex’s achievements firsthand, but through flashbacks, newspaper clippings, and an elderly woman’s ruminations on her life.


I couldn’t help but to ponder if this ill-conceived time skip was perhaps a choice of the publishers and/or editors to keep the novel a manageable size. If that were the case, they underestimated how much readers would love and relate to Alex, and how invested they would be in this young girl’s future. Though I found its ending bittersweet, When Women Were Dragons is a striking novel that effortlessly captures the glow of childhood, the sting of adolescence, the bloom of first love, the reality of adulthood, the weight of societal expectations, and the crushing nature of responsibility. And on top of all this, When Women manages to send serious messages under the guise of the somewhat ridiculous—women spontaneously transforming into dragons—and is easily a touching, fun, and memorable experience with a little something for everyone, but especially for any young women who have ever dared to dream of something more.


Book Review : When Women Were Dragons - Blogging with Dragons

Posted March 15, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


Geek Out:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.