Title: When We Were Vikings
Author: Andrew David MacDonald
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 336
Zelda, the protagonist of Andrew David MacDonald’s poignant debut novel, is a young woman with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who’s completely obsessed with Vikings. She lives with her brother Gert, who turned to crime to remove them from an abusive situation in the past and is beginning to fall back on old habits. Zelda has a lot on her mind- trying to get Gert and his ex-girlfriend Annie back together, for one thing, and the prospect of pursuing a physical relationship with her boyfriend Marxy. Zelda lives in a black-and-white world and her innocence and moral compass put her in danger with her brother’s associates.
There was one main problem I had with this book, which is that Zelda didn’t seem developmentally disabled to me. The way she retained information and her vocabulary felt WAY too strong and I felt like the author should have put her on the autism spectrum. I liked that this novel handled sexual feelings and behavior with mentally disabled people, since that’s a very real part of life that makes some people uncomfortable (often fictional characters with disabilities are desexualized and portrayed as totally ignorant of or uninterested in pursuing relationships- my dad worked at a school for disabled people and that stereotype can’t be further from the truth.)
I did find the relationship a little creepy because Zelda was clearly way more intelligent than Marxy, to the point where them even considering having sex was unsettling. Despite her diagnosis I never really believed Zelda’s disability was intellectual. She was an endearing character with a strong narrative voice, even though her use of platitudes and the heavy-handedness of her Viking obsession got tiresome at times.
Gert was also a good morally ambiguous character and I often had trouble deciding if I liked him or not. Everybody besides Zelda is some flavor of screwed-up or another and their self-absorption and casual violence made Zelda’s kindness particularly stand out. I liked the story despite my issues with it’s plausibility and the storyline moved at a steady pace. It kept me turning pages and it provided the perfect combination of humor and pathos.