Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

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Reviewed by Harriet

There’s probably a name for a sub-genre of books that echo or allude to earlier works of literature, something that has to be well done to make it appeal equally to those who have never read the origin text and to those who have. I reviewed a very successful example last year – Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (just out in paperback, by the way) – and here’s another. For, as most people must be aware, Demon Copperhead, which has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a re-imagining of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical  David Copperfield, set in the desperately poor Appalachian region of contemporary America. 

Anyone who has read Kingsolver’s books will know that she is immensely concerned by issues of social justice: in 2000 she established the Bellwether Prize to ‘encourage writers, publishers, and readers to consider how fiction engages visions of social change and human justice’, a category of which the present novel is a supreme example. Told in the first person, this is the story of the growing up of Damon Fields, a boy born in a trailer to a young, drug-addicted mother, who is in and out of rehab until she marries a cruel, merciless man, and dies, together with her newborn baby. Damon – who goes by Demon, and Copperhead for his red hair – is packed off to a school run by a sadistic headmaster, Mr Creakle, and ends up in a foster home where the boys are half starved and made to work for their living. His life takes a turn for the better when he runs away and finds his grandmother, who arranges for him to go to a good school and to live with the school’s coach, Mr Winfield, and his young tomboy daughter. Here he becomes a football star and revels in the adulation this brings, but a serious knee injury puts an end to the football and catapults him into opioid addiction. 

Most of Demon Copperhead is painful reading, and the long section dealing with his addiction is almost unbearably so. But Demon does have friends and supporters who help him along his seemingly doomed trajectory. There’s the Peggot family, always kind and welcoming, whose foster son Maggot becomes Demon’s lifetime friend. There’s Tommy Waddles, met in a bad foster home, who remains his friend and will be instrumental in helping him find a way to escape his desperate existence. His severely disabled great uncle Dick supplies him with inspiration from his wheelchair, and his art teacher Annie and her husband give him support along the way. And of course there’s Agnes Winfield, who prefers to be known as Angus, who becomes his best friend through thick and thin. But these are bright lights in what seems a more or less impenetrable darkness, and even these people will come close to despairing of him at times. 

So is this a depressing book? Yes and no. Kingsolver is a fine writer, and the novel is not short of moments of beauty. Also, Demon is fortunate to have a talent, which helps him to emerge from his addiction and seems to promise a hopeful future ahead of him. But there have been many along the way not so fortunate: his mother, of course; his adored childlike girlfriend Dori, who has edged him further into addiction and eventually succumbs to it herself; pretty Emmy Peggot, seduced by Demon’s so-called friend Fast Forward, who abandons her to a life of desperate drug-fuelled prostitution; and other friends who become casualties of drugs and lifestyle choices. These are people who are abandoned by the state and mocked by society as hicks, rednecks and moonshiners, and their plight is just as real today as in the early 2000s when much of the story takes place. Oxycontin, which Demon is prescribed for his knee injury, is still being prescribed – Purdue Pharma, who created it and marketed it, paid out $270 million to settle a lawsuit in 2019, but the company who took the firm over still produces it, and it is still approved by the FDA despite having been responsible for the deaths of many thousands and people and the destitution and misery of many many more. 

Dickens too was a campaigner for social justice and David Copperfield does reveal much of the suffering and injustice that existed in the society of his day. So knowing the novel adds a little interest in that you can see how Kingsolver created present day characters and circumstances to echo his original creations. Overall it’s quite well done, but certainly not a prerequisite for enjoying this tremendous and massively thought-provoking novel.  

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Harriet is one the founders and a co-editor of Shiny.

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber, 2022; paperback 2023). 978-0571376483, 520pp.

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