WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is a book that has a very interesting premise but is potentially problematic in a lot of ways. I breezed through it pretty quickly-- normally a good sign-- but when I finished, I found that I had a really bad taste in my mouth. Something about the book really didn't sit right with me. I finished the book on my lunch break and spent the rest of the day with my thoughts on the back burner, trying to figure out, what, exactly, it was about the book that rubbed me the wrong way. I think I figured out what those things are, but before I get into that, I need to tell you what the book is about.
WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is the story of Zelda, a high-functioning adult with fetal alcohol syndrome. She lives with her older brother, Gert: a man who should be in college but instead works as a runner for a local gang. Zelda, who lives her whole life by rules that make her feel more comfortable, takes umbrage with this, and when Gert's activities get all of them into trouble, she takes it upon herself to bail her brother out.
Interspersed with this are scenes of Zelda's everyday life-- she goes to an adult daycare where they teach her life skills she'll need to take care of herself; she has a boyfriend, a developmentally disabled boy named Marxy, with whom she wants to have sex; and she also sees a therapist named Dr. Laird, who she talks to about everything else. Zelda has a narrow scope of interests, which mostly revolve around vikings and dabbing. She dabs at people to greet them, and lives her whole life to the viking credo, including talking in Ancient Norse and, later, hefting around a giant viking sword.
So what didn't I like about this book?
Honestly, I'm shocked that this book has such high ratings. I'm guessing that people probably think the subject matter is brave, but I found a lot of it upsetting. First, this whole book feels incredibly exploitative in some ways. Zelda has fetal alcohol syndrome, which typically causes facial irregularities or deformatives. Zelda is quick to tell us she doesn't have these; she's just a small woman. All the men in this book think she is SO attractive and keep telling her how hot she is. What makes this extra icky is a big part of this book involves a subplot with Zelda wanting to have sex for the first time with her developmentally disabled boyfriend.
I get that people with disabilities want to have sex, too, but making sex the major focus of Zelda's internal and external sense of worth seemed kind of gross. When she and her boyfriend do go at it, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. It was SO cringe. The only other action she gets is from a guy she refers to as "normal" (normal meaning "not disabled"-- very ableist) who only wants to use her, and a guy who attempts to rape her. So even though sex is a big part of this book, none of it works out well for Zelda. She is lusted after by virtually all male characters in this book but doesn't really get to experience any empowering sexuality for herself-- it's all abuse and disappointment.
I also felt like the whole viking and dabbing angle was really twee. It felt like an excuse to make Zelda seem precious and quirky. Like a manic pixie dream girl. She even refers to herself as a valkyrie. Everyone else in this book is super quirky too, just in case that wasn't annoying enough. And what's with the blurb calling this book "heart-swelling"? It's actually really disturbing and dark and takes a pretty dismal look at how women and people with disabilities are viewed. Even Zelda, the main character, looks down her nose at her less functional peers with superiority. Yikes.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
2.5 out of 5 stars