When We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald (Website)
Genre: contemporary literature
Setting: unspecified town/city in the US
I read it as a(n): hardback
Source: my own collection / BOTM Club
Length: 326 pp
Published by: Scout Press (28 Jan 2020)
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
When We Were Vikings is the story of Zelda, a young woman on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. She lives with her older brother, Gert, but attends classes and group activities at the local community center. She is a Viking enthusiast and views most things in life through the lens of Viking culture, literature, and their honor code. She discovers that her brother is dealing drugs and dropped out of college and so she decides she needs to help contribute to the family’s treasure hoard to help Gert make ends meet. Throughout all her experiences, Zelda encounters people ranging from the very best to some of the worst imaginable. She uses the things she has learned about Vikings and one’s own tribe to help her navigate the challenges life throws at her with courage and honor.
This was a super fast read and an engaging one, although I felt there were hardly any likeable characters. Zelda was certainly likeable but Gert was pretty much a loser even though he honestly was trying. He’s one of those people who can fuck up a free lunch. Gert’s friends were the worst in just about every way possible. Anna, Gert’s on-again/off-again girlfriend who Zelda calls AK47, is a good person and tries to look after Zelda, but she seems conflicted about what is best for HER and it was frustrating to see. So in general, I didn’t care for the characters here except for Zelda, who I genuinely enjoyed.
There was a lot of good discussion around word use throughout the book. The word “retarded” was used a lot, negatively by Gert’s loser friends and some others we encountered. Zelda, though, would sometimes use it about herself as a way to take back the power from people who would use it to hurt her feelings. She said that owning it and using it herself makes it less powerful when someone else tries to use it against her. I can see that argument, but it still sucks that she even has to.
There was also a big plot point centered around sexuality and cognitive disability. Zelda is on the FAS spectrum but is very independent, is able to hold down a job, and have her own apartment. However, her friend Marxy, who is initially her boyfriend, has Down syndrome and is far less able than Zelda. It is not likely he will ever have the ability to live on his own, for example. His mother and AK47 agree to work out a time and place where Zelda and Marxy can have sex because they are adults and want to give it a try. I know people with cognitive disabilities can and do have perfectly healthy sex lives, but I confess that part of the story was a little uncomfortable for me. It seems like some kind of abuse, even though intellectually I know that isn’t necessarily the case. This article on cognitive disability and sexuality helped me have a better understanding.
On balance, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a lot of things to think about. I think it would make a terrific read for a book club. I didn’t like a lot of the actual plot or characters but the parts I did like were sufficient to outweigh any real dislike I had of other elements.
- In my dreams sometimes I think that Mom died and became a Valkyrie, that one day, when I am in a battle, she will take me with her to Valhalla (14).
- My favorite Viking saga is a legendary one called the Hrølfs saga Gautrekssonar, since it has a powerful king who is also a woman, named Đornbjörg. She kicks many asses and is so strong in battle that people don’t care that she is a woman (40).
- The box wasn’t very big. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful gift, since small things can be strong… (48).
- I practiced each of [the sword fighting moves] in the basketball court outside of the apartment until it got dark, pretending that Grendel, who is the most monstrous villain in the Viking story Beowulf, was in front of me. One of the things I’ve learned is that Grendels can hide inside people, pretending to be human beings until they decide to attack (61).
- The library is a very heroic place to work because librarians help people get stronger brains. They also help people who are homeless by giving them food in cans that other people put into the cardboard box by the door. … I knew that [Carol] had to be a fuck-dick in the interview because you have to prove yourself worthy of being a librarian. You cannot just be a librarian without overcoming obstacles (151-152).