Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Demon Copperhead, was inspired by a literary great, Charles Dickens, and his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. It has been years since I read the latter, fifty at least, so I will have to take her word for it on many points, but others were so blatant even I caught the similarities. To start with one doesn't have to look far as the opening lines set the tone, spoken by the narrators of the novels: David and Demon. David's book starts with these famous lines -- "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." While Demon's first few lines match the sentiment but with an updated, more fatalistic flair -- First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it... Save or be saved, these are questions. You want to think it’s not over till the last page. In the afterward Kingsolver acknowledges her gratitude for Dickens and his "outrage, inventiveness, and empathy." Even Demon gets into the act of praising Dickens when he discovered this author in school. Charles Dickens, he says, is “one seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.”
So Damen Fields is born to a young addict mom and his life starts off as a struggle, including being renamed by other children as Demon Copperhead. "Demon" because he was a bit of a hellion, and "Copperhead" because he liked to climb around on the rocks which everyone said was where loads of snakes hung out, but mostly because of his red hair. When Demon's mother dies he is just ten-years-old, and he becomes a ward of the state and moved into foster care. Life got a lot harder for him and it was already hard. “I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” he says. “Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”
In Demon Copperhead Kingsolver dips into the moral outrage that Dickens had for child poverty. Set in Appalachia in the 1990s, there is no limit on the horrors subjected onto children living in poverty: food insecurity, a foster care system that is so overwhelmed that children are often placed in homes where they are essentially little slaves, and a community overrun by drugs, specifically OxyContin and opioid addiction. “I don’t know a single person my age that’s not taking pills,” Demon says at one point. “If you’ve not known the dragon we were chasing, words may not help.”
At times I felt like I was reading Hillbilly Elegy (JD Vance) for the introspective look at what it feel likes being called a "hillbilly", a "hick", or a "redneck one's whole life." To this Demon says, “This is what I would say if I could, to all the smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes. … We can actually hear you...You get to a point of not giving a damn over people thinking you’re worthless,” he says. “Mainly by getting there first yourself.”
At other times I felt like I was reading from the excellent nonfiction account Dreamland (Sam Quinones) of how the opioid crisis got started with Big Pharma taking a leading role. Yet, thanks to Demon's sense of humor the book wasn't a complete downer. For example, I laughed out loud when I read his description of foster care as "a cross between prison and dodgeball."
In the end, just like his predecessor, Demon Copperhead's life is redeemed by his own abilities. David's were writing, Demon's were art, specifically drawing super hero comics. I found the ending satisfying but also wishing that all children growing up in such dire circumstances could experience such a hopeful way out.
I listened to the audiobook version of Demon Copperhead. The narrator, Charlie Thurston, did an amazing job. In fact, as he read the story, he became the voice of Demon for me and I found myself thinking it was impossible that a women could get into the mind and body of a boy as completely and believably as Kingsolver did with her male character. I recommend this format to you.
Now, I need to get ready for book club. I am the person leading the discussion on Demon Copperhead for our upcoming meeting. Here are questions I think should generate a good discourse: ReadingGroup Guide. Of the 20 questions listed, at a minimum, I specifically hope we can conquer these five:
- Consider the epigraph from Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD that begins the novel: “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” What do you understand this to mean? How is this idea relevant to the novel?
- Why is the city so shocking and difficult for Demon? What might it mean that “there was no outside anywhere”? Despite its problems and poverty, what did the rural environment of Lee County offer Demon and others that was valuable? What might it mean that spending time in the woods “can set you back on your haunches, in a good way”? What’s the difference between “country poor” and “city poor”?
- In what various ways is Betsy Woodall, Demon’s grandmother, different from the other adults in Demon’s life? What does she value in life? Why might she have chosen to only help raise and educate girls?
- What powers have influenced the economic and industrial history of Lee County and surrounding areas? How have they shaped these characters’ ideas about work, education and self-worth? What does the novel reveal about limited opportunities and structural poverty in Appalachia, and how they are typically interpreted by outsiders to the region?
- What is the “wanting disease” that Demon suffers? What does he mean when he says, “I had everything and still went hungry”? Why does Demon feel unseen? What role might this play in the way he falls for Dori, and his claim that there’s a fine line between love and addiction?
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