Another quick recommendation

Kelly Barnhill, When Women Were Dragons (2022, Doubleday/Random House)

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library and get your name on the waiting list for When Women Were Dragons. Waiting list, because the book most likely has been checked out. You might have to wait a while (I reserved a copy from the NYPL way back in April, and only just now got it — worth the wait). And I’m sending you to a library because librarians play an important role in Barnhill’s feminist fantasy for adults.

In her acknowledgments, Barnhill admits that the short story that grew into this novel was inspired by events during the 2017-2021 US presidential administration, particularly one of the Supreme Court nominee hearings in the Senate. In other words, the novel was born of rage and frustration, but then grew in unexpected ways — a bit like planting deadly nightshade seeds, only to see them sprout vines that produce wisteria and clematis and morning glory blossoms, even a few grapes. (By the way, if that plant actually exists, I want some seeds. Now.) Yes, there’s plenty of anger in this novel, but, as Barnhill writes, “In its heart, this is a story about memory, and trauma. It’s about the damage we do to ourselves and our community when we refuse to talk about the past.”

I won’t waste your time with character bios, or a synopsis — readily available almost anywhere. Instead, let me just tempt you with some quotes:

A woman’s letter to her mother: “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.”

Alex, the narrator, on the birth of her cousin: “The universe became more of itself once Beatrice was in it.”

Alex again: “People are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.”


Alex’s Aunt Marla to Alex: “Just because people won’t talk about something, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less true or important.”

Alex on a nation’s refusal to discuss its past: “Embarrassment, as it turns out, is more powerful than information. And shame is the enemy of truth.”

A scientist in one of his pamphlets: “The silencing or obscuring of any aspect of nature — due to cultural taboo or fear or general squeamishness — harms science.”

A congressman after a hearing: “All I know is that we just spent a lot of damn time learning nothing of consequence, except what it feels like to get your ass handed to you by a goddamned librarian.” [Me: Shout-out to LIBRARIANS WORLDWIDE!]

A librarian to Alex: “I encourage you to consider the question: Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?”

“Who benefits?” That is, who besides ourselves gains from our choices? How long must we choose NOT to be ourselves so that we don’t make others uncomfortable? Conversely, how often do we choose to stop others from being themselves because their choice would inconvenience or discomfit us?

Dragons and librarians and scientists, and girls becoming dragons and librarians and scientists. It could be such a wonderful world!

Lizzie Ross Gravatar, 2013

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in dragons, Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Another quick recommendation

  1. Jeanne says:

    I love most of these quotations, out of context, especially “Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?” My mother continually asked this question and taught me to ask it.
    The context of the story, however, kept this book from becoming what it could be, much like Alex herself. Why set the story in 1955? Why try to make readers sympathize with a woman who is resistant to feeling her own anger? Why couldn’t her aunt have been the main character?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Jeanne, for your comments and for making me think even deeper about this. I loved the link to the HUAC tribunal, the 50s-ish flavor of “ideal woman = mother and homemaker”. It’s a sobering reminder of how far we came before the recent fallback — not to mention of where we could end up if we hide our anger.

      I suspect that making Marla the main character would have given us a different story. Marla would never have denied Beatrice her own choice to become a dragon, so we’d have lost that tension.

      My frustration with the story is how long it took Alex to recognize her own selfish role in denying self-hood to someone she loves.


  2. I loved The Girl who Drank the Moon. And have been waiting for this, though I will take yours and Jeanne’s comments into consideration about the time period. There are two holds ahead of me at the library.

    Liked by 1 person

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