Zelda MacLeish, the protagonist of Andrew David MacDonald’s debut When We Were Vikings, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with lifelong implications.” (https://nofas.org/) Some of the common developmental disabilities found in people with FAS include “decreased IQ and deficits in motor skills, attention, executive function (working memory, problem solving, planning, and response inhibition), language, visual perception, adaptive functioning (skills necessary for everyday living).” (https://nofas.org/)
Now 21, Zelda lives with her older brother Gert. The siblings live a life dictated by schedules and rules that have been put in place to make Zelda feel secure. Gert is attending college on a scholarship and he does his best to look after his sister, but the truth is that he is only a couple years older and life isn’t easy.
Zelda is fascinated by Vikings. For her 21st birthday, Gert hires a stripper dressed as a Viking. Zelda remarks “Even if you were not an expert on Vikings and had not read Kepple’s Guide to Vikings, you would say, that is a Viking.” But Zelda is an expert and she notices several things about the stripper which are not historically accurate including the fact that his sword isn’t made of metal, his outfit is plastic, and his blonde hair isn’t natural. Zelda follows the Viking code, dividing the people she meets into members of her tribe: Gert, AK47 (also known as Annie, Gert’s ex-girlfriend), Marxsy (Zelda’s boyfriend), Dr. Laird (her therapist) and villains (most of the people Gert associates with).
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 strong 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.
Zelda will have her chance to prove that she is a Viking when Gert’s extra-curricular activities land him in hot water. She is so much more than meets the eye and I loved every single second of my time with her. One of the things I most love in a book is a strong voice…and Zelda’s is just perfection.
When We Were Vikings is funny, and heart-breaking (often at the same time). This is a novel about found family, but also about the unbreakable bond between siblings. Gert is a deeply flawed human being, but he loves Zelda. This is definitely a coming-of-age story, and watching Zelda navigate the tricky waters of her life is a marvelous journey to take.