Demon Copperhead by writer Barbara Kingsolver, a tribute to Charles Dickens

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, New York: Harper, 2022, 560 pp.

The adjective “Dickensian” has entered the English language to denote systemic social inequality and brutal poverty and squalor, particularly in regards to the cruel treatment of child victims of circumstance.

The latest novel by American author Barbara Kingsolver Demon Copperheada coming of age story written in homage to Charles Dicken David Copperfieldexplores how this term is applicable to the contemporary US opioid crisis in Appalachia, an area he knows intimately.

The social crisis arose as giant US pharmaceutical companies pumped billions of opioids into populations in some of the poorest and most deindustrialized regions of the country, deliberately campaigning for doctors to prescribe them. Many addicts started with a prescription from a doctor.

Between 2006 and 2012, $76 billion of prescription painkillers were dispensed, fueling an epidemic that companies responded to by pumping more pills into the hardest-hit regions, especially Appalachia. Former coal mining centers in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee have been particularly targeted.

By 2021, US deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses rose to 71,000, up from 58,000 in 2020.

The fact that Kingsolver has chosen to write about the impact of the opioid crisis while also delving into literary history is in line with the interest he has previously shown in social and historical issues. His first novels (1988 and 1993) featured the adoption of an Indigenous child by a non-Indigenous parent. The 1998 publication of The Poisonwood Bibleon the aftermath of an American family’s trip to the then Belgian Congo in 1959 so that their father could be a missionary, it won her a large following. The gap, set in pre-WWII Mexico and post-war United States, it earned her the Orange Prize for Literature.

Kingsolver must be fascinated by Victorian England and the connections it may have to today’s United States. His 2018 novel without shelter, which was partly about the contemporary threat of homelessness to even middle-class people, contained an archival discovery of a real letter from Charles Darwin.

That a prominent novelist like Kingsolver has embarked on a project that pays sincere tribute to Dickens is good, given some of the identity-politics-based hostility directed against him in recent years.

She wrote: “I am grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his passionate critique of institutional poverty and its harmful effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my place and time, working for years with his indignation, inventiveness and empathy by my side, I have come to think of him as my genius friend.

Daguerreotype portrait of Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852.

Kingsolver’s imaginative reworking of the novel which Dickens describes as “his favorite son” (for it wove some autobiographical elements) is entirely readable as a work of fiction in its own right, but it faithfully portrayed the plot of David Copperfieldand sometimes conversations transplanted directly from Dickens.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *