Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950s America is characterized by a significant event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons, left a trail of fiery destruction in their path, and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex's beloved Aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn't know. It's taboo to speak of.
If much of the novel feels like a full-throated howl, an indictment of a system of gender apartheid, an alchemy occurs in the final chapters. Barnhill relaxes into her characters, and it's here that When Women Were Dragons really sings. The stakes feel more genuine as Alex navigates her first relationship and also grapples with letting Beatrice, whom she has parented for years, find her own path ... Written on the heels of that bruising Supreme Court battle, and before the current 'Don't Say Gay' laws and push to ban books, When Women Were Dragons reminds us how difficult it is to put the knowledge of freedom back into the bottle and the cost to a society that tries.
... evocative ... Balancing the story between Alex's recollections and historical documents, Barnhill explores the taboos around women and anger, resizing paradigms of choice, freedom and the complicated roles of gender in society.
Alex, a physics prodigy whose own mother dies six years later, is a plucky, tenacious heroine, selflessly devoted to Beatrice and undaunted by her dismissive father or pervasive 1950s sexism. Is she too perfect to be real? Probably. But a book in which women spontaneously morph into dragons (amid social pressure to forget it ever happened) isn’t aiming for realism, just delightful fun ... This is a lovely motif in the novel: knots of string and twine and wire forming and unraveling, as women try to stop themselves from dragoning. It’s a pleasing metaphor for the ways the ties that bind us to our lives can also hold us down ... Barnhill intersperses a variety of fictional 'found texts' throughout her narrative, and they make for enjoyable and very funny sketches.