From the Stacks: New historical fantasy novel soars into the unknown

MRRL/News Tribune
MRRL/News Tribune

If it were 2023, a girl like Alex Green from "When Women Were Dragons" by Kelly Barnhill would be celebrated for her STEM prowess and on track for the college of her choice, but it's the 1950s and young girls like Alex aren't expected to continue their education past high school.

They're expected to get married and raise a family, two things Alex has no interest in pursuing.

Instead, she wants to be like her beloved Aunt Marla, who took care of her while her mother was hospitalized with cancer.

Marla was fiercely independent and an adept mechanic, respected amongst her male counterparts. Even when Marla capitulated to Alex's mother by getting married and having a child, she maintained an air of self-reliance.

The year 1955 proved to be pivotal, not just for Alex's family, but families everywhere.

It was the year of the Mass Dragoning, when thousands of women suddenly grew talons, sprouted scales and tossed off their human lives in favor of stretching their new wings and soaring off to places only dragons know.

Alex's Aunt Marla is one of the many to turn, leaving behind an infant daughter (her deadbeat husband missing, presumably consumed). Baby Beatrice is taken in by Alex's mother and presented as her own daughter.

Any mention of Marla or dragons is quickly silenced. Polite people don't talk about something as intimate and embarrassing as dragoning, after all.

Why did Alex's aunt turn into a dragon but not her mother?

Was Marla's change a choice and if so, how could she choose dragoning over her own daughter?

Will the dragoning continue or was the Mass Dragoning of 1955 an isolated event?

So many questions and scarcely any opportunities for anyone to know the answers with any degree of certainty as the few who are brave enough to research the phenomenon find themselves at odds with the US Government and their censored work.

As far as the public is concerned, it's simply best buried and forgotten.

This clever alternate history combines coming-of-age, allegory and magic realism to great effect.

The narrative alternates between Alex's first person narration and an assortment of her world's historical documents including transcripts, excerpts from "A Brief History of Dragons," interviews, articles and so on, immersing the reader in a time that feels as familiar as it does fantastical.

Author Kelly Barnhill is well-known in the world of middle grade literature, having won the Newbery Award in 2017 for "The Girl Who Drank the Moon" but this is her first novel for adults.

Readers seeking Barnhill's signature blend of elegant writing, incisive allegory and detailed worldbuilding will be delighted and perhaps left wondering if they too will feel the call to shed the trappings of humanity, to stretch their wings and take to the sky.

Courtney Waters is the Youth Services Manager for Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City.