BookShelf: “When Women Were Dragons”

What if women in 1955 transformed into something different than the bodies and capabilities they were born into? This is what Minneapolis author Kelly Barnhill envisioned when she wrote “When Women Were Dragons,” published in May by Doubleday. The book “exposes a world that wants to keep women small — their lives and their prospects — and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.”

This is what we know: On April 25, 1955, between the hours of 11:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. central time, 642,987 American women — wives and mothers, all — became dragons. All at once. A mass dragoning. The largest in history.

My mother was not among the women who dragoned on April, 25, 1955. But my aunt Marla was. The distribution of dragoning across the country was haphazard and unpredictable. Six children in my third-grade class had mothers who dragoned. In the grade above me, only two children had mothers who were lost. The grade behind had twelve. There were towns hit hard by the dragoning, and towns that were blessedly untouched. The reasons why remain a mystery. Even now.

The facts, of course, are indisputable, but that did not stop people from attempting to dispute the facts. There were eyewitnesses, photographic evidence, utterly destroyed homes and businesses, and no fewer than 1,246 confirmed cases of philandering husbands extracted from the embrace of their mistresses and devoured on the spot, in view of astonished onlookers.

One dragoning — from its initial gasp, to the eruption of tooth and claw and wing, to the explosion of speed and fire — was caught on 35mm film, taken at a child’s birthday party in a backyard in Albany. Only one of three national news broadcasters attempted to show the film, but it was censured immediately by the FCC (and slapped with a hefty fine for the dissemination of obscene and profane material) and forced to suspend operations for a full week before having its license reinstated.

It is assumed that more such films exist, but they were presumably either confiscated by local authorities (and in that case, are lost forever) or simply socked away in stacks of film canisters or hoarded in boxes in basements and are likely decomposed by now. Too embarrassing to look at. Too inappropriate. It’s dragons, after all — tainted, it would seem, with feminine stink. Such things are not discussed. Best forgotten, people said.

People are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.

The number 642,987 became a source of some consternation and argument. While a full reckoning of the women who dragoned on April 25, 1955 — who they were, who their children were, whether their husbands survived, and who they devoured — had been commissioned by both the United States government and the United Nations, several key pieces of information remained conspicuously absent.

Foremost was this: with the intense focus centered on the discrete events of the Mass Dragoning of 1955, a national silence persisted regarding the other spontaneous dragonings that happened prior to April 25, and that still continued after. It was a silence that led to official censure, blacklists, fines, occasional jail time, the shutting down of scientific journals, and the destruction of careers.

Most officials dismissed the possibility of any transformations prior to April 25, 1955, choosing instead to respond to the occasional reports of possible transformations by simply explaining them away. Those who mentioned dragons were often dismissed as conspiracy theorists or deranged kooks. Or worse: cynical provocateurs. For years prior to the Mass Dragoning, any anomalous occurrence invoked state and local governments to once again distribute pamphlets to help quell the rumors, while daily public service announcements interrupted radio and eventually television broadcasts as a coordinated attempt to curb hysterical thinking. And while each explanation was, indeed, perfectly rational, not one was altogether satisfying.

Consider, for example, the munitions factory outside Portland, Oregon, which had been destroyed by fire and shock wave, only weeks after the end of the war. According to initial reports, the explosion and resulting fire occurred on the very day the female factory workers learned that they would soon be losing their jobs. The men were coming home and settling down, after all. And the nation was preparing to go back to normal. No one knows what happened inside the factory that day; there were no known survivors. But while the bodies of the foremen and supervisors had been extracted from the rubble (in terrible states, all of them, poor fellows), not a single female corpse was ever found. The official explanation was simply that the female employees, standing too close to the blast, had been incinerated instantly, leaving nothing behind to bury. But that didn’t account for the dragon-shaped holes in the exterior walls. And it certainly didn’t explain the fact that nearby farmers described what felt like a mighty wind, and an explosion of wings, and a flock of what appeared to be enormous birds, streaking across the western sky.

“Munitions factories,” the reports said. “They are basically tinderboxes. Explosions happen. Clearly, better safety protocols are needed.” Most accepted this explanation. And the world moved on.

A year later, a young wife sat on a park bench in Kalamazoo, Michigan, staring at the sky while her children played in a nearby playground. Her husband had been an officer in the European theater. A hard man, everyone said. Ill-equipped for civilian life. Neighbors whispered that his return wasn’t going very well. And then one day, she left her handbag on the ground and simply . . . vanished. There were other mothers, playing with their own children in the same playground, who mentioned a shadow that briefly covered the sun. But when they lifted their faces, it was gone. They shivered as they recounted the story, rubbing their arms briskly, remembering that sudden, fleeting cold.

“We always knew she was flighty,” the president of the Junior League said. “Motherhood didn’t suit her. We aren’t surprised she left.” And again, the world moved on.

And there were the stories — hundreds of them across the country — of brides on their wedding days who shut themselves in the dressing rooms in their various houses of worship, saying they had cold feet. By the time their families pried the doors open, they found a wedding dress in pieces on the ground, and a gaping hole in the where the window used to be. Church repair became a booming business from coast to coast.

“Brides,” newscasters said in knowing tones. “Sometimes they get away.”

Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Barnhill.