“For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me. And it kept me so all the way through. There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to. But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage.
“You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct. I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me. Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”
So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel. An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away. Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it. Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day. Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.
That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try. Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own. Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic. But Alex remembered.
At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth. Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind. But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.
The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible.
Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine. Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems. Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound. A dragon is not less. She is large. She is strong. She is powerful. She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her. She can come and go as she pleases. She does not conform.
In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences. Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves. The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men. Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.
There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book. The dragons themselves. By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me. They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment. While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light. Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me. However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book. So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”
“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened. This, my friends, is an impossibility. While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…
“Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.”
So do I.