In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.
As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “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.”
Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.
Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.
In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.