• The Good: Dragoning is metaphor for having the power to fight your causes
  • The Bad: Slow pacing; disappointing dragons; exclusive feminism
  • The Literary: Chapter breaks with newspaper articles, court case testimonies, and scientific articles

Alex Green loves when her aunt Marla and baby cousin Beatrice visit, but after the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers mysteriously took to the skies, Alex’s aunt disappears too. Alex’s mother adopts Bea and never speaks of her Marla again.

I like the symbolism of dragoning, of feeling so contained in a human body, of not being allowed to be yourself, that a person might spontaneously slough off skin and grow scales, leave the world behind, and become a monster. That’s the premise of When Women Were Dragons, a feminist tale set in 1950’s Wisconsin, when thousands of women transformed at once, leaving behind their husbands and families, and taking to the sky.

Most of the book isn’t actually about dragons. The media hush up any further dragoning events, and authority figures teach children not to even mention it. Alex’s mother and father pretend that her aunt never existed and her baby cousin is actually her sister. A few years later, Alex’s mother passes away from cancer, and her father remarries. He puts Alex and Bea up in a small apartment, sends them money monthly, but never visits them again. Alex struggles with abandonment issues, taking care of her little sister/cousin, covering for her father’s absence, staying successful in school, and being belittled about her future desire to attend university because she’s a girl.

Alex comes to hate the dragons and what they represent, while she shoulders the responsibility of the women who left her. It’s not until (spoiler alert) the dragons start returning and doing good things for society that she slowly relents. So in one way, the book is disappointing because of the lack of dragons and satisfying retribution on the system. On the other hand, the portrayal of the oppression of women is so blunt that there’s no room left for the nuance and diversity of what feminism can represent.

Although the book does make mention of BIPOC events happening in some distant part of the country, the POV story is white middle-class feminism and lesbianism. I’m not saying the author intends for this book to be exclusionary feminist, but it doesn’t say much for women who aren’t mothers, women who don’t want to pursue a traditional college education, women of color, or those who self-identify as women.

If you’ve read all the classic feminist books out there, sure, give this a try. Otherwise, go read A Handmaid’s Tale and The Color Purple first. For a highly structured regency-era class system with dragons, try Tooth and Claw; 1950’s coming of age story about raising a younger sibling, I’d recommend To Kill a Mockingbird.