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When We Were Vikings

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A heart-swelling debut for fans of The Silver Linings Playbook and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Sometimes life isn’t as simple as heroes and villains.

For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all...

We are all legends of our own making.

This reading group guide for When We Were Vikings includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Sometimes life isn’t as simple as heroes and villains.

For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”

2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.

3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.

4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.

5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. On page 13, Zelda says, “Deeds and actions are what will make a person great and legendary.” Do you think Zelda’s deeds and actions throughout the book have given her legendary status? What about Gert’s or AK47’s? Discuss with your group.

2. In the beginning of the book, Zelda tells a woman, “Hurting children causes emotional unstability as adults.” Discuss Zelda’s and Gert’s childhood. Do you think they were able to overcome the instability of their own childhoods and form meaningful relationships with others? Why or why not? Do you think it is possible for people to come out of a traumatic childhood unharmed?

3. Zelda frequently repeats wisdom she has learned from others, such as “we do not lie to people in our tribe.” Share with your group something you learned from Zelda or your favorite Zelda quote. Have you applied any of Zelda’s wisdom to your own life?

4. Zelda often refers to the famous Viking skeleton that was recently discovered to be a woman and not a man. She also finds out that this Viking woman was a high-ranking warrior. How does this change Zelda’s outlook on life? What does this mean for her? Discuss her reaction in the context of gender representation in pop culture.

5. Gert can be categorized as both a villain and a hero. Discuss with the group his role as both archetypes. Do you think Gert is a good brother? Why or why not? Did you ever empathize with him? Why or why not? Discuss how the same actions can cause someone to be seen as a villain by some but as a hero by others.

6. One of Zelda’s driving forces throughout the novel is to be taken seriously and be seen as an adult. Where does Zelda’s need to be seen as a grown-up lead her, and how does this drive impact her life? How does Zelda defy others’ expectations of her?

7. Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings is an important tool for Zelda as she navigates the world. Discuss the value of books and libraries in your life. Was there a book such as Kepple’s Guide in your life that changed the way you viewed the world?

8. AK47 tells Zelda that “the world is too complicated to have rules for everything.

And when it comes to things like love and sex—you need to kind of figure them out on your own.” Why do you think Zelda struggles when she doesn’t have a set of rules to follow?

9. Dr. Kepple tells Zelda that “sometimes life finds us, and when it does we have to rise to the occasion and have courage.” How does Zelda demonstrate this at different points throughout the novel?

10. Zelda says she forgot Toucan was a villain when he was dying. How does Toucan’s death affect Zelda, AK47, and Gert?

11. In terms of Zelda’s Viking moral code, does Zelda’s killing of Toucan make her a villain or a hero? What do you think would have happened if Zelda never confronted him?

12. Dr. Kepple also says that “we make lists, rules, and try to order things, trying to control them, when actually the most important parts of life, the parts really worth cherishing, are the things that we don’t expect.” Do you agree or disagree? Discuss with the group your most cherished moments and whether or not they were moments you expected.

13. On page 138, AK47 tells Zelda, “I love him, I do. And I want things to work. But it’s not so simple.” Discuss the romantic relationship between Gert and AK47 versus between Zelda and Marxy.

14. By the end of the novel, Zelda has displayed constant bravery and heroism in the face of challenges and obstacles. Discuss with your group whether you know of anyone with a disability who has triumphed in a similar way, and how society at large can better help people like Zelda flourish.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Discuss with your group what you think will happen to Zelda after the book ends. How will her life change or stay the same? Do you think that when she grows old, she will feel she has lived a legendary life?

2. Zelda calls to mind heroines from other novels branded as “up lit,” such as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Compare and contrast the protagonists in these novels. Do you think they would all be friends? Why or why not?

3. Zelda references the poem Beowulf many times in the novel. Read the poem as a group and compare and contrast the story with When We Were Vikings.

4. To learn more about fetal alcohol syndrome, to donate, or to get involved, contact the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (www.nofas.org).

Andrew David MacDonald grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Canadian National Magazine Award for Fiction, and his work has been anthologized in four volumes of The Journey Prize Stories, collecting the year’s best Canadian stories from emerging writers. He has an MFA from the Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
 

  • Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press (February 1, 2020)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982152642

"Zelda is a marvel, a living, breathing three-dimensional character with a voice so distinctive she leaps off the page.... When We Were Vikings is the tale of Zelda’s quest for autonomy, and MacDonald charts her course admirably." The New York Times

“Heartwarming and unforgettable.” People

"A sweet, funny, dark, roller coaster ride of a book, about two unforgettable siblings trying to help each other grow up. Zelda is an entirely original character, a young woman with a cognitive disability, trying hard to navigate life on her own terms. But it’s her loving thug of a brother, Gert, that stole my heart. A wonderful book that’s less a novel than a movement, proving we can all be heroes of our own stories." —Lisa Gabriele, bestselling author of The Winters

"It is rare that a book comes along with a character like Zelda, whose singular vision of the world transforms your own. Noble, chivalrous, wise, and true, Zelda undertakes a heroic quest that will leave you breathless and profoundly changed. When We Were Vikings is a triumph. It made my heart sing, full-throttle, like a Viking in an opera." —Jessica Grant, author of Come Thou, Tortoise

"In this engaging debut novel, MacDonald skillfully balances drama and violence with humor, highlighting how an unorthodox family unit is still a family... With Zelda, he's created an unforgettable character, one whose distinctive voice is entertaining and inspiring. Will appeal to fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. An engaging, inclusive debut." Kirkus Reviews

"MacDonald's first novel is a truly original story filled with love, tragedy, heartache, and triumph, and his heroine is sure to inspire readers to be legendary themselves." Booklist

"The guileless Zelda, who narrates, is a joy... 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." Publishers Weekly

"In this well-written and compelling novel, MacDonald conveys Zelda’s particular challenges and succeeds in bringing her to life." Library Journal

"Told with skillful empathy, When We Were Vikings explores a violent world as experienced by Zelda, a girl with a mental disability finding her power. Andrew David MacDonald is a writer to watch, an insightful new voice who invents in ways that feel deeply personal." —Sabina Murray, PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of The Caprices

"In When We Were Vikings, MacDonald has written one of the most unique heroines I’ve ever read. You can’t help but root for, care about, and thoroughly enjoy Zelda and her quest to be legendary. A most-welcome and wonderful debut." —Tyrell Johnson, author of The Wolves of Winter

“A quirky, heartfelt novel about an unlikely heroine — a woman who survived fetal alcohol syndrome. Her journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own.” —Saturday Evening Post

"When We Were Vikings is eye-opening and heart-expanding. The mundane and the fantastic meet in a powerful mix of joy and sadness, as Zelda embarks on a legendary quest to gain her independence and protect what’s left of her family. By the last page, you will wish you were part of her tribe, too." –Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

"You shall not pass! These are the words of Zelda, but also my advice to any reader who is lucky enough to come across this book. Andrew David Macdonald has written of the finest debut novels I have ever encountered, and I have no doubt that he will become as legendary as the beloved Zelda. This book glows, it shines, and most of all, it’s important. Macdonald’s humanity and empathy make this a book worth treasuring. I’ve never, ever read anything like it. Zelda is fresh, she’s fearless, and she gives the reader hope, something so rare these days. She is brave, she is determined, and she will stay with you for all your days to come—there is a Zelda inside all of us, and this delicious book will give you the courage to face the things you fear the most. There is no better gift than a book that can change lives." —Richard Fifield, author of The Flood Girls

"With Zelda’s unique narrative voice in my head, When We Were Vikings made me laugh, cry, and chew my fingernails down to stubs in anticipation of what would happen next. Moving, memorable, and utterly original." Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review