On April 25, 1955, between the hours of 11:45 am and 2:30 pm central time, 642,987 American women—wives and mothers, all—became dragons. All at once. A mass dragoning. The largest in history.
Alex Green was four years old when she saw her first dragon, sat in her neighbour’s garden exactly where her neighbour used to sit. She never saw the woman again, and no one would speak to her about it. Indeed, no one would speak about dragons at all. Alex loved her Aunt Marla, and her cousin Beatrice even more so. But on the day of the Mass Dragoning of 1955, her capable, vivacious aunt ceased to exist.
A dragon blinked on the dance floor. Alice wasn’t Alice any more. Or no. She was more than Alice. She was infinite degrees of Alice.
When We Were Dragons is such a unique story, applying McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities to spontaneous change of women into dragons. Once the US was convinced that it was not caused by a secret Soviet weapon, it became taboo to talk about. Being a dragon was a feminine thing and feminine things were to be kept to oneself. Mentioning dragons was akin to swearing or talking about, god forbid, periods.
The narrative is told in a mix of Alex’s memoirs and snippets from other publications, where we learn more about the Mass Dragoning and its effect on society. At its centre is a coming of age story, starting when she is four, when it might be expected that people don’t tell her everything. Yet as she grows up, it seems the world is keeping a huge secret, where there are holes in so many families that are not discussed.
I felt ashamed in ways that I couldn’t explain. It was as though she had drawn pictures of naked breasts. Or soiled sanitary napkins. “I drew that,” she said cheerfully.
Both Alex and Beatrice get into trouble for reasons they don’t understand. Getting too close to a girl. Drawing pictures. They aren’t told why these things are bad, but after the disappearance of Aunt Marla, Alex had learned to internalise a disgust of all things dragon, while Beatrice doesn’t even know that dragons are off limits. Attending a Catholic school does not help matters, where the school fails to teach them anything useful about their bodies, just that certain things are bad. Alex comes away from her “health education” mightily confused.
The fifties and sixties of Alex’s youth are full of misogyny. Maybe if the men had turned into dragons, then it would have been higher priority, talked about on the news, and not swept under the rug like an embarrassing stain.
Alex’s mother was a brilliant mathematician but her husband thought educating women was a waste, and her job was to be a mother and a wife. Throughout the book there are references to knots. While we never got to the bottom of Mrs Green’s theories, the passages about the culture of knots hinted that maybe she was tying them to keep her family bound in their human forms. Maybe she’d worked out string theory…
Usually it was the firefighters who would arrive early and set the alarm in the first place, and then pace the hallways, giving kids tips on the best ways to use a biology textbook to protect a human skull from nuclear annihilation. They mostly were able to do this with a straight face.
There is a lot of injustice in Alex’s life. Is the dragoning a metaphor for female rage at the unfairness of society? Are the women confined in their roles and in order to break free they must metamorphose into dragons? Is becoming a dragon linked to sexuality? Well as Dr Gantz likes to say, science is about being proved wrong, and there aren’t concrete answers to any of this, but it was fun trying to figure it out.
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