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When We Were Vikings

Review

When We Were Vikings

Written in the vein of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, THE ROSIE PROJECT and GIRL IN SNOW, Andrew David MacDonald’s WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is a poignant and heartfelt debut about 21-year-old Zelda, a young adult who was born on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. Though Zelda is high-functioning and can do things like read and take the bus by herself, she relies on repetitive lists of rules and her own Viking-inspired moral compass to navigate the world. When she decides to stray from her own rules, however, and learns about the ways other people are breaking ones she thought were unbreakable, her entire world is upended, and it is only through her own supreme Viking strength that she is able to right it.

Ever since her mother lost her battle to cancer, Zelda has lived with her older brother, Gert. Once a high school football champion, Gert is now having a bit of a rough patch, which is complicated by his being responsible for Zelda’s well-being and her own fight for independence. Zelda and Gert run a tight ship --- their home is regulated by lists of rules, and their schedules are perfectly aligned so that they will always know where one another is at any given moment. Rounding out their little family is AK47 --- Annie --- who drives a bus to the community center and occasionally dates Gert; Marxy, Zelda’s boyfriend; and Dr. Laird, Zelda’s psychiatrist. But her true constant companion is Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings, a book about Viking lore, legend and mythos that she uses to guide her actions in her everyday life.

"...a poignant and heartfelt debut... Zelda would say [MacDonald] would make a tremendous Viking well on his way to becoming a Legend, and I think that’s the best review imaginable for this beautiful book."

At the start of WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS, Zelda is celebrating her 21st birthday. Gert has hired a stripper dressed like a Viking, and Marxy’s mother, Pearl, has dropped him at their apartment for an hour, even though she believes it to be the wrong side of town. Life is going pretty great for Zelda, but she wants more: more freedom, more honesty and more experiences. First and foremost, after sharing their first French kiss, Zelda and Marxy are ready to have sex. Though Gert is horrified by the idea --- both as Zelda’s brother and as her primary caretaker --- it is an important step in Zelda’s life, and draws to the forefront the national conversation about the rights of the mentally and cognitively challenged.

Continuing to take steps towards her independence, Zelda soon discovers that Gert has been lying to her. Although he was awarded a scholarship for college that pays for his education as well as his and Zelda’s housing, he has dropped out of school. When Zelda goes snooping for information, she finds out that not only is Gert dishonest, he is dishonorable and weak (at least in Viking terms) for he has a gun stashed in his room, along with mysterious wads of cash --- oh, and there’s that thing his classmate said about being out of hash. Utterly wrecked by the revelation that her brother is not the strong warrior she once believed him to be, Zelda recruits AK47 (again, Annie) to draw up some new rules for Gert --- and for her. With these in place, Zelda gets a job, takes an important step with her boyfriend, and learns how to become more and more independent, all in the hopes of contributing to her tribe’s hoard and becoming a Legend.

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is immediately striking for its language. Zelda is intensely literal, occasionally hysterical and always wiser than she even knows. Her dialogue --- internal and external --- is a sharp staccato, written with no contractions and punctuated by constant definitions of words new to her. MacDonald captures her mind and personality so expertly that I soon found myself falling into Zelda’s way of speaking. Even more captivating is her obsession with Vikings and the way that it informs her life. For example, she knows that all Vikings must complete a series of achievements and challenges in order to become Legends, including winning the heart of a fair maiden. Zelda may not know what “maiden” means, but she knows that she loves Marxy, and so she begins calling him her Fair Maiden. It is an easy nickname to laugh at, but Zelda holds both maidens and Marxy in such high regard that it is more heartwarming than hysterical, and reveals more about Zelda’s beliefs than could possibly be written on the page.

It is this nuanced writing that makes WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS truly shine. MacDonald, writing through the eyes of someone who does not always see the reality of what is in front of her, places just enough context clues in his work so that readers are kept aware, without putting down or making fun of his protagonist. Even during times when the truth seems obvious, Zelda’s lack of fear at asking what exactly is happening puts her in control and leads to some deeply philosophical and wise ponderings. The book is certainly sensitive to its main character and her disabilities, but it is also celebratory of her unique strengths and brilliance.

I should say that the revelations involving the truth about Zelda’s life can be difficult and even painful to read. Before striking out on their own, Zelda and Gert lived with an uncle who Zelda refers to as a “Grendel” --- the worst enemy of a Viking. Add to that the painful reality of Gert’s life becoming a pseudo-parent way too young and being forced to find creative ways to make ends meet, and you have some serious trauma to unpack. But MacDonald handles it all with grace, compassion and honor. Zelda would say he would make a tremendous Viking well on his way to becoming a Legend, and I think that’s the best review imaginable for this beautiful book.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 31, 2020

When We Were Vikings
by Andrew David MacDonald

  • Publication Date: January 28, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
  • ISBN-10: 1982126760
  • ISBN-13: 9781982126766