When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Published by Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: January 28, 2020
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction
Zelda has just turned 21 and life is good. She lives with her older brother Gert, has a boyfriend, goes to the Community Center for classes, and has a therapist who helps her understand things about people and life that don’t make much sense to her. What makes her happiest is Vikings and she loves everything having to do with their culture. Her favorite book at the library is Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings. She emails Professor Kepple with her questions about Vikings and when problems arise in her own life. Zelda is the disarming heroine who wants to become a legend in Andrew David MacDonald’s novel, When We Were Vikings.
Zelda’s parents are dead. Her mother drank excessively while pregnant with her so she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She’s not able to live on her own, but thrives with a regimented schedule, even getting a job at her beloved library. She and Gert lived with their uncle, a very unpleasant situation, until Gert found a house for them. What Zelda didn’t know, but discovers shortly after When We Were Vikings begins, is where he got the money. She knows Gert only as part of her tribe, her protector. She doesn’t care that people call him a thug, because she knows he’s smart and now he’s in college. But now his choices are impacting both their lives and the security Zelda needs is vanishing. She decides as a strong Viking she needs to do something.
MacDonald writes When We Were Vikings from Zelda’s perspective, meaning everything is precisely stated. A fact is a fact. There is no blurring in her world between right and wrong. There are only heroes and villains, as defined in the Viking ethos. This could give the novel a stilted feel if not handled well, but MacDonald infuses a gentle humor into the space between Zelda’s worldview and reality. She is singular in her thought process, so doesn’t understand societal expectations (you don’t repeatedly email authors asking for help in your personal life). It’s more of a child’s expectation as to how the world should be, but as the difficulties mount around her, Zelda shows herself to be anything but a child.
This is the second novel I’ve read partially written in the style of a long-ago culture. One of the main character’s in Bryn Greenwood’s novel The Reckless Oath We Made was a young man with autism who lives his life as a medieval knight. I loved it, even though, just as in When We Were Vikings, it takes a bit of time getting used to the language. It also helps that in both cases, the authors layer very real and often difficult circumstances around their main characters. They’re not living in seclusion in their own minds—they’re out in the world facing real challenges. If you can ease yourself into language that doesn’t feel natural at first, When We Were Vikings, is a rewarding novel that captures the tough and the tender in equal measure.
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