REVIEW | Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead examines the underside of life in Appalachia

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber)

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber)

RESERVE: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber)


In this lively and clever reworking of the great novel by Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Barbara Kingsolver wrote a love song for the Appalachian people. Demon, a red-haired, green-eyed Melungeon, was born into a community of people often disparaged as rednecks and hillbillies. His story is a good read for anyone interested in the social history of poverty and exploitation.

Yet while this is a satisfying rewrite, this isn’t Kingsolver at his best: this novel is highly readable but doesn’t compare to The gap And Without shelter. The author seems to have young readers in mind, who would be Demon’s peers. I hope he will have many of these readers and that his message will stay with them for life. He aims to comment on and correct the negative narrative about coal miners and farmers of southwestern Virginia.

Demon tells this story, his own and that of his neighbors and relatives. Born to a teenage drug addict mother whose dad died in a drowning accident, Demon’s prospects, early in life, are not good. But he and his mother are literally saved by the kindness of their neighbors. And, later in the story, by a dedicated teacher or two and a nurse.

Demon’s natural talents make him a star in high school football, until a vicious tackle destroys his knee. And in his early teens he found that he excelled at drawing which led him to cartoons, comics, comics and graphic novels appearing weekly like the early Dickens novels. These are the positive sides of the story.

The shattered knee drives Demon into oxycontin painkiller addiction and other forms of drug use. Some of these are unbearable reading, but Kingsolver carries on. He never gives up on that perfectly accomplished voice of a farm boy from Lee County, Virginia, who doesn’t see the ocean until he’s in his 20s but knows how to sell prescription drugs in a parking lot.

Kingsolver has great fun establishing the structure of the narrative and changing the names of Dickens characters to fit the late 1920sth century in southwest Virginia. Readers who remember the original will appreciate it, but Demon’s story stands on its own without literary-historical references. The villains are closest to their fictional ancestors, well done. Steerforth becomes Fast Forward, a friend whose betrayals are a bitter lesson for Demon. Uriah Heep (U-Haul) manifests as the delivery boy and coach’s assistant, too close and creepy to comfort.

Probably the most adorable in both versions of the novel is Peggotty/Mrs Peggot, whose indestructible kindness and common sense make up for the vicious drug dealers. Warning: This sometimes looks like the book’s version of a mash-up by Breaking Bad, OzarksAnd Liberation. The women and girls in the life of Demon follow the Dickens originals in smart modern versions, as Emmy, Dori and Angus – Kingsolver at his creative best. Betsy Trotwood becomes Betsy Woodall, a joyous advocate for all feminists. Here’s that famous scene where her runaway boyfriend finds her:

“There was no sign on the road, but there was a yellow house, lonely and high on a hill as if it didn’t want company. The place was very decently kept, big windows, the courtyard full of flowers, a fence around it with a wire gate that I didn’t dare open. I was dirty enough to scare the birds out of that yard… For whatever reason I didn’t immediately see the lady pulling the weeds, until she straightened up and put her hand on her back. Damn. Maybe the tallest old lady I’ve ever seen, tanned, like a handful of tobacco. Hard in her features. She was wearing a man’s hat and shoes, a stout skirt…”

This book has such a particular focus and appeal that it may be difficult for some, but those who persist to the end will be both changed and informed by this look at the underside of American society: unpretentious, desolate, neglected, even a modern world. most depraved dungeon in its worst parts of Dickens’ Victorian London.

As in David Copperfield, the orphan survives his life of suffering, and the novel ends on a note of believable hope. If you’re looking for a dose of reality served with compassion, you’ll find it here.

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