Review of When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
I loved this book in which Zelda has to figure out what it means to live her own legend.
Zelda is in her twenties and lives with her older brother Gert, who, she notes, some people call a thug. She is a stickler for the Rules of the House, sets herself a daily Word of the Day, and follows highly structured routines—on certain days she finds her own way to the community center where she and other young adults with challenges and disabilities play and learn social and practical skills; on certain other days she visits the library; twice a week she visits her trusted therapist, Dr. Laird. Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. (This is, clearly, awesome.) She uses Old Norse words in her speech and thoughts; she frequently mentions bravery, combat, wisdom, and other elements of Viking legends to anyone she encounters; and she models her life after the factors she considers essential to a Viking legend. Zelda carries on a heartbreakingly candid, one-way correspondence with the author of her favorite Viking reference book, “Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings,” and in her messages to him, she explains her modern-day dilemmas and ruminates on how to resolve them in proper Viking fashion. She’s eager to learn how to be more independent, and she’s so smart and accurate with so many of her pure and good instincts and actions, it just makes your heart swell. She’s also gloriously selfish and flawed and impatient sometimes. But there’s a dark undercurrent throughout When We Were Vikings: when she becomes caught up in sketchy business of her brother’s, Zelda finds that her situation is a lot more complicated than sorting out her love life with Marxy from the community center, playing matchmaker with Gert and his wonderful ex Annie, or securing a job at the library. She has to figure out what it means to live her own legend, and whether she can save Gert or even save herself.
Zelda's often black-and-white point of view and lack of social subtlety are presented as affected by her condition of mild fetal alcohol syndrome. Her pinpoint focus on morality, bravery, and what is right (which is beautifully spot-on and also makes your heart ache) often reminded me of characters' points of view that are similarly hyperfocused and black-and-white in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and The Reckless Oath We Made.
I loved this. The characters, the story arc that isn’t too easy but leaves you in a promising place after all, and the dialogue—love love love.
This is Andrew David MacDonald's first book. I'm all in for the next one.
What did you think?
If you've read it, what did you think? What did you think of Zelda's point of view? Do you think the condition that has helped shape Zelda and her life was presented in a plausibly realistic way?