Book review: When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

We all want a simple life.

One in which goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies and there is no massive murky grey zone spreading out between the black and white which are never close enough or as well defined as many of us would like.

But that’s life – it’s contrary and messy and not easily worked out, something that Andrew David MacDonald’s When We Were Vikings‘ Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast on the Foetal Alcohol Spectrum who lives with her older brother Gert, is beginning to really grapple with.

Sheltered by her brother, who took on her guardianship after the death of their mother, Zelda is a guileless young woman who believes a spade is a spade and life can be lived by rules and lists alone.

Delightful in her innocent directness, Zelda, who you cannot help but fall in love with in a way that happens only with the most relatable of characters, is forced to confront the often confounding intractability of life when a series of unexpected events lead her on the road to more independence and a willingness to live life on her terms and no one else’s.

“Once Dr. Laird asked me why I liked Vikings. I told him three reasons:
One, they are brave.
Two, they are strong and people have to think twice before trying to hurt them.
Three, Viking heroes stand up for people who can’t defend themselves.
I told Dr. Laird that I wanted to be all of those things. People look at me and do not think that I am brave or string and that I am the one who needs protection. My legend will show people that, even if you are not gargantuan, you can still be strong and brave and help others in your tribe.” (PP. 40-41)

It’s a journey all of us have to undertake at some point, a rite of passage that might test us and push us but which ultimately is relatively easily handled as we build on the learning of a lifetime.

To an extent Zelda has been equipped with these tools by Todd at the community centre she attends on a set number of days a week – Annie aka AK47, who is Gert’s ex-girlfriend/current girlfriend/it’s complicated okay, picks her up and drops off in the centre’s bus – and by her therapist Dr. Laird whom she sees weekly, but her ability to take these lessons and mold them into workable real life day-to-day dynamics is hampered by an initial propensity to take everything at face value.

Initially, that is.

As she discovers some disturbing things about the way Gert is making his money and the impact it is having on his studies at the local state college, she is learns some very hard questions about life, guided, as always, by Viking saga and lore, specifically Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings, a book that means so much to her than she regularly emails the author, hoping to get insight into what she should do next.

Alas, while you have to admire her absolute confidence in the relatability of Viking society to the modern day, you find out, along with her, in a number of harrowing situations, that you can’t always take everything her heroes did as perfect exemplars of how to live a successful and empowered life.

Andrew David MacDonald (image courtesy Shelf-Awareness)

Or you can but you had better be prepared for the consequences which, given the less-than-stellar character of some of Gert’s friends and business associates can be darker and more dire than you’re expecting (especially in a book this delightfully quirky much of the time).

Zelda all too often dashes into situations based on her total faith in the world of the Vikings to guide and sustain her, and while that is joyously inspiring, and you will find yourself smiling in admiration, it doesn’t always end up as expected.

The refreshing thing all the way through When We Were Vikings is that MacDonald never ever treats Zelda as anything other than a normal human being trying to, belatedly, make her own way into the world.

While she definitely has some limitations due to the damage done to her in utero by her then-alcoholic mother, she is possessed of bravery, compassion, grit and smarts, and the ability to learn from her mistakes and to do better next time.

Well, most of the time anyway; as some gripping later scenes in the novel display, her admirable loyalty and willingness to stand up for those she loves and cares for, a universal expression of humanity if ever there was one, often overtake her ability to learn from previous expressions of poorly if wonderfully-motivated judgement.

“‘Do you remember the Viking article I gave you? The one about the woman Viking?’
I said I did.
‘Do you know why I gave it up to you?’
‘So that I could become a hero.’
‘Everyone is a hero in their own lives,’ he said. ‘That’s by default. But I wanted you to see that sometimes the world thinks something is not possible, but it turns out that they can be wrong. Even fancy scientists can be wrong.’
“Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists,’ I said. ‘And sometimes those are things we don’t expect. Like this apartment.’
Dr. Laird smiled. ‘Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists. I like that.’
‘Me too.’
We dabbed again.” (PP. 316-317)

But then who of us are any better as nailing life perfectly every time?

Certainly Zelda puts us all to shame time and again as she does what she believes is right and with a surety of purpose and emotional purity charges in to protect those she loves.

She doesn’t always get it right, and like all of us, makes mistakes and gets herself into some real danger at times, but she at least tries and it’s this willingness that makes you love her as much as you do by the end of this heartwarmingly real and grounded novel which MacDonald infuses with as much darkness as he does whimsicality.

When We Were Vikings is a real joy – a novel tells the story of one woman’s journey from complete dependence on others to a place where she is well and truly able to stand on her own two feet, emboldened as always by her beloved Vikings who perhaps knew more about making in our world 1000 years than we give them credit for.

Or perhaps, it’s simply that Zelda is an amazing, noble, loving and self-sacrificial young woman who uses Viking society as a launching pad for her own grand quest to find herself, what matters to her and ultimately a life full of bravery, sacrifice, truth and the type of authentic, heartfelt expression that many of us would do well to emulate.

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