When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Here is another book I’m not sure how it ended up on my reading list.  I think When We Were Vikings was an Amazon recommendation; one of so, so many books I have on my Kindle thanks to a $1.99 impulse buy.

Anywho, it did have an interesting description which led to my buying it:


Looking for some light but engaging bedtime reading, I metaphorically pulled this from the Kindle pile.

I have mixed feelings about this book as well. First of all, the publishers description above might not give you a complete picture of the story line here.  Zelda has cognitive disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome.  The story is told from her perspective and with that challenge in mind.

The positive side of the book is clear: Zelda is a great character and has a great voice.  She really drives the story and gives it depth and meaning.

Publishers Weekly:

The guileless Zelda, who narrates, is a joy, and her fierce love for her family drives her, even if it means running headlong into danger. MacDonald avoids oversentimentality and a too-neat resolution, instead depicting Zelda’s desire to shape her own life and be the hero of her own legend with frankness and humor. Readers will be inspired by the unforgettable Zelda.

Jillian Medoff’s review in the New York Times also notes this strength: “Zelda is a marvel, a living, breathing three-dimensional character with a voice so distinctive she leaps off the page.”

Part of my mixed feelings about the book can probably be chalked up to my general prudishness. Like Gert, I was uncomfortable with Zelda’s focus, near obsession, on sex.  I was also kinda annoyed by the language and ugliness of some aspects of the story but, to be fair, that is part of the realism.

But there is a deeper issue here which Medoff’s review also captures:

However, MacDonald fumbles a critical aspect of Zelda’s becoming — her sexual awakening — in a way that’s troubling yet all too familiar. Sex permeates “When We Were Vikings.” There are dirty jokes, double entendres, come-ons, threats and straight-up violence, little of which Zelda understands or appreciates. It’s unclear whether MacDonald expects us to laugh at her naïveté or feel horrified on her behalf; either way, the net effect is jarring.

Having once been young, I can confirm that Zelda’s preoccupation with French-kissing and losing her virginity rings true. But MacDonald places her in sexual situations that leave her unsatisfied and diminished; Zelda is, by turns, infantilized, duped and very nearly raped. In a book that so lovingly celebrates her autonomy, it’s again unclear why she’s consistently portrayed as powerless — once maybe, but three times? — and this lack of clarity makes these scenes feel gratuitous, as if they were superimposed on the Y.A. themes to reposition the book.

I didn’t have this sort of clarity while reading it, but it gets at my uncomfortability.  There is an incongruity that goes beyond my prudish nature; something that feels almost exploitative.  Maybe it is the blurring of line between adult and YA fiction or maybe it is the difficulty of trying to tackles disability, family dysfunction and violence and poverty in a coming of age story. But parts of it were hard to read and seemed out of place.  Perhaps you think some topics should be hard to read but are still necessary.  But I am with Medoff, I think it could have been handled more skillfully.

That difficulty aside, MacDonald does a great job of allowing the reader to see the world through Zelda’s eyes with all the complexity involved in a broken family trying to make things work.  You can feel the challenge of Ger trying to get his life back on track while caring for his sister.  You can feel the strain of poverty on school, work, and relationships.

But you also get the joy of the optimism and determination of Zelda; her fierce independence and desire to chart her own course.  Having worked some with individuals with disabilities seeking employment, the story rang true and helped illustrate the challenges and the joys of seeking to be independent.


In this engaging debut novel, MacDonald skillfully balances drama and violence with humor, highlighting how an unorthodox family unit is still a family. He’s never condescending, and his frank examination of the real issues facing cognitively disabled adults—sexuality, employment, independence—is bracing and compassionate. With Zelda, he’s created an unforgettable character, one whose distinctive voice is entertaining and inspiring.

There is a lot to like about When We Were Vikings, but there are also some rough and challenging aspects.  If you go in reading with your eyes open, you are better off.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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