When Women Were Dragons: an enduring, feminist novel from New York Times bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill

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When Women Were Dragons: an enduring, feminist novel from New York Times bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill

When Women Were Dragons: an enduring, feminist novel from New York Times bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill

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Thirdly, the language is often quite simple and direct, if a little uneven. Altogether it feels very like a fun book for late teens, but with a not-so-hidden message. This world, perhaps a similar world to that of the readers’ grandmothers, wants to keep women small—both their lives and their prospects. But we see what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve. There is a clear message here about expanding your horizons: opening your mind to new possibilities, and accepting others for who they really are. These are suitable messages for everyone, but especially for what have come to be termed as YA books. Just thinking about this book makes me smile, I love the message to it, I love how this book makes me feel, how clever it is, this book is a celebration of and a love letter to women. The pains and struggles of women are not glided over in this book but women are not made victims either. The writing style is easy to get your teeth into (no dragon pun), the characters likeable and good (mostly) but not perfect which makes them feel like someone you know. Finally, because I had come to see the little old lady, and I was nothing if not a purposeful little girl, I cleared my throat and demanded to know where she was. The dragon looked at me, startled. It said nothing. It winked one eye. It held one finger to its lipless jaws as though to say “Shh.” And then, without waiting for anything else, it curled its legs under its great body like a spring, tilted its face upward toward the clouds overhead, unfurled its wings, and, with a grunt, pushed the earth away, leaping toward the sky. I watched it ascend higher and higher, eventually arcing westward, disappearing over the wide crowns of the elm trees. A stranger stepped out of the car, wearing my mother’s clothes. A stranger with a face similar to my mother’s, but not—puffy where it should be delicate, and thin where it should be plump. She was paler than my mother, and her hair was sparse and dull—all wisps and feathers and bits of scalp peeking out. Her gait was unsteady and halting—she had none of my mother’s footsure stride. I twisted my mouth into a knot. This motif is repeated throughout the novel: knots of string and twine and wire forming and unravelling, as women try to stop themselves from dragoning. There is a supernatural element to this, as on occasion Alex views her world as a mirage, changing before:

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.” Alex, our main character – bright, academically inclined and with zero plans to marry in a time when keeping house and raising babies was all women were good for - was a child when the day known as The Mass Dragoning took place and her aunt sprouted wings and took to the skies. As per the blurb, Alex is forced into silence and now must live with the consequences; a mother more protective than ever, a father growing increasingly distant, a dragon obsessed cousin she must now call sister and an aunt she must forget ever existed. Kelly Barnhill couldn’t have realized when she wrote When Women Were Dragons how prescient it would be when it went on sale this month...Barnhill’s prose is gorgeous and powerful."Come now,” my aunt said tersely, “that’s enough of that. We want you to look your best, now, don’t we?” I had a friend once. But my father dragged her away. There was more to that story, but it hovered just out of my reach, insubstantial as smoke.” The story opens in a small Wisconsin town, where Alex, a budding scientist, grows up in a household full of secrets.

Dumbfounded, Alex swallows her questions and goes along with the ruse. She adores her buoyant sprite of a “sister”; besides, she has work to do: Unlike the other girls in her class, Alex is determined to make it to college and study physics.

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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. The one thing I would say is that this book is being marketed as YA but, personally, it read as adult. Everything about it, from the tone to the themes to the way it followed through so much of Alex's life, felt like adult to me. I thought I was writing a story about rage. I wasn’t. There is certainly rage in this novel, but it is about more than that. In its heart, 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. It’s about the memories that we don’t understand, and can’t put into context, until we learn more about the world.” 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

philandering husbands extracted from the embraces of their mistresses and devoured on the spot, in view of astonished onlookers”. 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.” When Women Were Dragons is an attention-grabbing title. It sounds like alternative history, is it? Yes. But is it also a metaphor? Yes. Or is it an allegory? Again, yes. It’s also in part a coming-of-age story. You see, it all depends how you look at it. More than anything, this book is angry, in a deeply relatable, quietly suppressed way. The allegory of dragons as ‘women’s problems’ is sharply and skilfully woven, from the taboo against even the most euphemistic discussion, to the ingrained expectation that girls “keep their eyes on the ground” so they don’t get any lofty ideas about flying, to the plea that daughters be protected from dragon influences at school (“They asked for America to please think of the children.”) The way Alex herself plays into this dragon-related sexism is an apt example of how women replicate their own experiences to enforce patriarchal expectations: she doesn’t let her younger sister Beatrice play make-believe about dragons or talk about flying with wings, using her mother’s script. “Inappropriate.”

At every moment we are told exactly what to feel, "show not tell" is not considered in this novel. There is a lot of repetition early on in particular that becomes tedious to read, especially when Alex is trying to convince herself of her mother and father's lies. While I believe it was attempting to convey the level of indoctrination of society's refusal to admit dragons exist, the assertions felt out of place. Similarly, the links to real life (e.g. segregation, silencing of climate scientists, homophobic and transphobic laws) are so blunt that Barnhill is really hitting us over the head to make sure we don't miss them. A little more nuance and subtlety with the ideas would have improved the reading experience greatly. Ok, so I will admit the title of this book really called to me when I saw it. When Women Were Dragons is a reimagining with a definite fantasy thread, the dragons kind of give it away really!

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