When Women Were Dragons
Kelly Barnhill

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Well, now I’m mad. This book is beautiful, cathartic, and so rage-inducing that I’m not sure if I want to reread it. (The dedication states that the book was triggered by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, if that gives you any indication of the level of rage.) I’m somewhat torn because, while the book is infuriating, it is also a deeply moving account of self-love, found family, and generational trauma, presented as a document that is both research paper and memoir.

When Women Were Dragons is a speculative retcon in which humans are pretty much as they are right now, but with one key difference: women can spontaneously turn into dragons, and have done so throughout history. This ability is not strictly confined to women, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The act of transformation is called “dragoning,” but, though dragonings have been sporadically recorded for centuries, scientific understanding is limited and often wrong because dragon-related information is efficiently suppressed at every level of society through a calculated combination of misinformation, gatekeeping, and gaslighting. Aside from a small community of scientists spearheaded by Dr. Henry N. Gantz and protected by badass librarian Helen Gyzinska, nobody is interested in discussing the origins of the dragons, or even that there are such things as dragons. Additionally, because dragoning is almost universally associated with women regardless of country, there have been several recorded instances of men interfering with the dragons at the cost of their own lives, and – in at least one case – at the expense of their entire community.

This brings us to April 25, 1955, when 642,987 American women dragon at once and take to the skies, often destroying their houses and devouring their husbands on their way out the door. Eight-year-old Alex Green loses her Auntie Marla to the Mass Dragoning, but is unable to acknowledge this fact for several years owing to a coordinated campaign by her parents, teachers, and government to keep children from learning about dragons. On the day of the dragoning, Alex’s mother (Bertha) unceremoniously adopts Beatrice, Marla’s one-year-old daughter, and informs Alex that Beatrice is now her sister rather than her cousin. Any questions are met with an unwavering insistence that Beatrice has always been Alex’s sister, that Marla never existed, and that dragons are definitely not real. Alex knows this isn’t right, but she also knows that her questions will not be answered, so she uneasily accepts the new arrangement. While Alex readily joins in on the anti-dragon conspiracy, however, Beatrice is oblivious, and she spends much of her time drawing dragons, looking for dragons, and pretending to be a dragon despite Bertha’s efforts to contain her.

Aside from the dragons, which are blamed first on communism and then on female biological problems, Alex and Beatrice lead relatively stable lives until the day Bertha succumbs to cancer. Alex’s widowed father seizes the opportunity to marry his secretary, then kicks both girls out of his house. Left by herself in a cheap one-bedroom apartment with no income besides what her father provides in a somewhat regular allowance, fifteen-year-old Alex is forced to become a surrogate mother overnight to eight-year-old Beatrice. She spends the rest of her childhood frantically keeping up her high school grades, taking college courses by correspondence, cooking and cleaning and caring for Beatrice, grappling with her attraction to women, and steadfastly ignoring every hint, no matter how tiny, that dragons exist. Rescue comes somewhat late, but it eventually does arrive in the form of Marla, who is still a dragon but has had some time to think things over. She returns with three other dragons, and together they set up house in an untenanted building and take over Beatrice’s care while Alex starts college. Despite her initial hostility towards the dragons, as well as her lingering anger at her and Beatrice’s abandonment, Alex gradually learns to embrace her new family. The end of her first semester is eventful: Beatrice finally dragons on Christmas day, and Alex’s girlfriend Sonja follows suit shortly thereafter. Alex nearly dragons as well when Sonja invites her to explore the cosmos with her (literally), but chooses to remain human. She becomes an internationally renowned physicist and watches as the world is steadily forced to accept dragons as an integral part of society, while Beatrice founds an NGO called Guardian Dragons, which started as a project to remove children from war zones but evolved into a more general mission to protect civilians by – among other things – defending their villages and removing land mines.

This is a book that perfectly understands its heroine, because I never questioned anything Alex did. Her fractured childhood and the trauma of having her aunt abruptly erased, combined with the fact that Alex is held responsible for Beatrice’s dragonish tendencies, have given her a kind of tunnel vision that shuts out any mention of dragons. She becomes deeply uncomfortable whenever dragons are mentioned, sometimes exploding into screaming fury if pushed too hard, and repeatedly reinforces the general structure of this society that is so determined not to acknowledge either the dragons or the fundamental problems that created them. She is, for lack of a better word, infuriatingly narrow-minded on the subject of dragons despite her scientific aptitude – and I get it. Her narrow-mindedness makes perfect sense in a world in which she will be immediately punished for allowing Beatrice to say the word “dragon.” It’s heartbreaking, but I get it, and it really makes me wonder how many brilliant scientists have completely shut their minds to things they might otherwise have explored, but for some earlier trauma. How much have we lost?

Certainly we lost Bertha, a brilliant mathematician who inexplicably decided that Alex’s asshole father was an appropriate reason to become a homemaker and spend the rest of her life pretending that she’d never gone to college. To which I say, fine, as long as you’re happy, but she never seemed happy. I’d be slightly less judgmental if she hadn’t pressured Marla into a similarly unhappy marriage with another oaf. The thing is, Alex’s psyche is clear, but I never understood her mother. I don’t know what she saw in Alex’s father. I don’t know if it was the kind of marriage he had with his secretary, in which she was already pregnant before he married her. I don’t know why she was so uncomfortable with her own achievements. I don’t know her, and I wish I did. The one thing that is clear, albeit in retrospect, is her decision to stop her own dragoning. She clearly did not trust her husband to raise Alex and Beatrice properly, and she was quite right.

Meanwhile I’ve learned far more about Alex’s father than I ever wanted to know, including his crippling self-pity and his insistence that Bertha is at fault for her own cancer. If I could reach into the book and flick him into a volcano, I would. It bothers me that he never faces any repercussions for abandoning two children, not even any good old-fashioned American “What would the neighbors say?” shame. I hate that nobody ever holds him accountable for his selfishness, his drinking, his philandering, his homophobia, his toxic masculinity. I hate that he thinks it should be easy for a teenager to raise a child and keep house while also attending school. I hate that he keeps calling every week just to tell Alex she should forget about college and just get married. I hate that after everything he’s put her through, he still feels entitled to Alex’s unquestioning obedience. I hate that Alex never gets to tell him what she thinks of him. Her reticence is practical when he’s still sort of supporting her, but she has a chance right before his death and she misses it. After her final visit to his house, he has a heart attack or something, which is a far more peaceful death than I would have wished for him. I mean, I want to see some consequences here. Fuck kindness and forgiveness, I want him to get torn apart by a horde of angry dragons.

I also wish there had been some explanation of the knots Bertha studies throughout her life. Part of her obsession with knots is clear – earlier in history, there was a man who learned that a certain kind of knot could prevent and even undo dragoning, which is why Alex and Beatrice are made to wear knotted bracelets as children – but I’m less clear on her ability to unknit every knot in the general vicinity when her emotions are running high. This is never explained, beyond a general assertion that all women are magic. My natural impulse would be to assume that dragoning or almost-dragoning can be powerful enough to undo the knots that are supposed to prevent it, but, since the unknotting only happens in Bertha’s presence, this clearly isn’t the case. Does that mean, then, that every woman has some magical niche that responds to her emotions, or is this unique to Bertha? Is she aware that her emotions can undo her knots? Do men have this ability too, since it’s been discovered that they can dragon if they want to? Is it magic that turns people into dragons, or is it swallowed rage?

While we’re at it, why do we never see dragons from other parts of the world? Are Americans the only ones who are angry enough to hear the dragoning call? I appreciate the beginnings of inclusivity – black women and trans women have also been known to dragon in large numbers, and presumably were part of the Mass Dragoning – but I would have liked to have seen what’s been going on in the rest of the world, especially as the dragons later start going on rescue missions. And I’ve gotta say, that doesn’t sit entirely well with me, (1) because, again, I feel like the dragons shouldn’t be just an American phenomenon, and (2) since they are all American, at least as of the end of the book, this is really starting to smell like white savior complex, even if the dragons aren’t necessarily white. Race is briefly mentioned, but it isn’t discussed at any point, so I don’t know the demographics of the dragons. It’s entirely possible they’re more diverse than I’m making them sound. Still, it bugs me. I wouldn’t say the story is colorblind, or even that it’s trying to be. Alex simply never encounters any BIPOC people. My primary question, of course, is whether I (an Asian American woman with anger issues) would have been presented with the opportunity to dragon because you’d better believe I would’ve grabbed it before it changed its mind and run off to start setting people on fire bahaha you’d never see me again.

Ultimately, I think I underestimated how painful it would be to read about the silence and expectations and cultural restrictions placed upon another woman. Alex is a mirror through which I, and doubtless countless other women, can see snatches of ourselves. I remember being taught to be polite to adults, no matter the cost. I remember taking that lesson into adulthood, where even now I can only rarely speak up when I have a problem, and then never for very long. (My blog is different. I’m writing to the void, nobody is actively gatekeeping me, and I don’t have a live audience in front of me.) I remember being taught that I was responsible for being the better person in situations involving any kind of harassment. I remember that I had to hit my ninth grade lab partner before he understood that I never wanted him to touch me again, and I remember how long I let him poke me, tell lies about me, and play with my hair before I finally snapped. I remember, and, remembering, wish there had been just one scene where Alex exploded at somebody who actually deserved it. Her father and her incompetent calculus teacher would have been a fine start.

Yet even with all of the above, I have no hesitation in recommending this book. I think everybody needs to read it. I wish the writing had been slightly better, as it tends to bobble between language that is either beautiful or cringey, and it definitely needed a better proofreader, but overall, what a read. The female characters are numerous, intelligent, ferocious, kind, and often queer. They’re wonderful. Though I am slightly sad that Alex never got to experience dragonhood firsthand, it was a choice that she made for herself, and I respect that. Dragoning isn’t for everybody, and that’s okay. We are all okay. We may not have dragons in the present day, but, if nothing else, this book has left us with a very clear message: when women come together and support each other, we can change the world.