Women face the constraints of the 1950s and find a way out | Books and authors


“When Women Were Dragons” by Kelly Barnhill; Double day (352 pages, $28)

What can’t be named can’t be questioned in this new novel by Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill, which immerses readers in a time of post-World War II conformity and repression with a speculative twist.

The Newbery Medal-winning children’s author dedicates her first novel for adult readers to Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony at Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings has sparked the rage of many women.

Barnhill turns this suppressed rage into a source of power, creating an alternate timeline where women said to suffer in silence spontaneously transform into dragons, often immolating violent men in the process.

The story begins in a small town in Wisconsin, where Alex, an aspiring scientist, grows up in a house full of secrets.

Nobody will tell him why his mother disappears for months and his aunt Marla, single, moves in to take care of the family. Or why his father disappears in his work, sometimes not returning home in the evening.

Meanwhile, alarming events occur in her community, as spontaneous “dragon” women break out in a fire that sometimes flattens buildings.

These isolated eruptions are covered up, suppressed by the local media and by police and firefighters who respond to “incidents”. Scientists seeking answers to the phenomenon are summoned to be interrogated and expelled from their universities.

Aunt Marla is a breath of fresh air in this stuffy environment. She’s a mechanic who works in a body shop – a tall woman who takes up space and stares at the men who pass her.

“My aunt was tall, loud and bright. Sometimes she laughed harder than any man I knew. I found it exciting, but terrifying too. She had a way of occupying a room that seemed dangerous,” Alex recalls.

Then Aunt Marla disappears during a “mass dragon” of nearly 650,000 women, leaving behind a baby. Beatrice is adopted as Alex’s “sister” and any mention of her aunt or dragons is forbidden. His mother begins to obsessively weave knots and his parents cut off Alex’s friendship with a neighbor, who also disappears.

The stranger things get, the more Alex is forced to pretend she doesn’t see what she sees. Silence and conformity, what one character calls “mass oblivion,” are as suffocating as a world that elevates men while forcing women into secondary roles.

While much of the novel feels like a full-throated howl, an indictment of a gender apartheid system, alchemy occurs in the final chapters.

Barnhill relaxes into its characters, and it’s here that “When Women Were Dragons” really sings. The stakes feel more authentic as Alex navigates his first relationship and also strives to let Beatrice, whose mother she has been for years, find her own path.

The novel moves from the stifling conformity of the 1950s to a world where gender identity and the family structures built around it turn out to be more fluid than anyone could have imagined.

Written on the heels of that deadly Supreme Court battle, and before current “Don’t Say Gay” laws and pushes to ban books, “When Women Were Dragons” reminds us how hard it is to put back the knowledge of freedom in the bottle and the cost to a society that tries.

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