‘When We Were Vikings’ by Andrew David MacDonald

I’m intrigued by books that are written from the point of view of people who a cognitively atypical for whatever reason: ‘Rain, Reign’, ‘The Seven Imperfect Rules Of Elvira Carr’, ‘The Rosie Project’ and now ‘When We Were Vikings’.

I like them partly because my own thought processes and reactions have often been seen as atypical so I have a certain fellow-feeling but mostly because they look at people trying to make the most of their lives not by attempting to achieve a normality expected by other people but by building on their own strengths, acknowledging their own weaknesses and to become more themselves. Of course, I also like that the main characters are engaging and that the situations that they navigate are well-grounded in reality.

Zelda, the main character in ‘When We Were Vikings’ thinks differently because her cognition has been affected by foetal alcohol syndrome. In Zelda’s case, the physical differences are minimal apart from her small size but she has to work harder at memory, maths, social skills and thinking things through. Zelda knows this and sets out to try harder so that she can be more.

Zelda has become of fan of Viking culture through reading Kepple’s ‘Guide To The Vikings’ which her brother bought her as a birthday present. The Vikings appeal to her because they lived by a code that requires loyalty to the tribe, because women Vikings could become powerful warriors, but most of all because Vikings could become heroes by creating their own legends. It is Zelda’s intention to become legendary and she backs up that intention with a checklist of goals and a plan.

This may all sound a little twee. It isn’t. Zelda is twenty-one. She lives with her older brother Gert, who is trying to get through college. Her tribe consists of Gert and his sometimes girl-friend Annie, who Zelda calls AK47. Zelda and her brother are orphans who have fled from an abusive uncle. They live in poverty in a tough part of town and even that has had to be funded in ways that have gotten Girt involved with some dangerous people.

Zelda is trying to live a full life. She wants to contribute to the tribe. She wants to have sex with her boyfriend, who also has cognitive problems. She wants to protect her brother.

This book walks the line between poignant and mushy without crossing it. The world Zelda lives in is one filled with the potential for violence and failure. Yet Zelda drives herself to be as legendary as she can. Zelda does well but not in a way that is unrealistic. She has failures as well as successes. She’s not a kick-ass warrior. She is often afraid and she sometimes fails to understand the risks she’s taking and puts herself and the people around her in danger.

I don’t know if the way Zelda thinks is a realistic portrayal of how someone with her cognitive problems would think. I do know that Zelda won my heart. I cared what happened to her and that seems more important than whether she is an accurate portrayal of the thought processes of someone affected by foetal alcohol syndrome.

After all, accepting Zelda for who she is and not what she is, is what the whole book is about.

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of ‘When We Were Vikings’. Phoebe Strole gives a powerful performance. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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