What if you rewrote the Charles Dickens classic David Copperfield, but set it in a contemporary Appalachia wracked by the opioid crisis, in order to make the point that the income inequality and human exploitation of the Victorian era are still with us? Sounds impossible, right? Yet this is exactly Barbara Kingsolver’s ambition in her ninth and latest novel, Demon Copperhead, and miraculously it works.
Why does it work? The engaging voice of the title character carries the book. Kingsolver has a special flair for first-person narration — her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible involved five different narrators, each instantly recognizable — and Demon Copperhead is one of her strongest narrators yet. His birth name is Damon Fields, but he soon acquires his nickname due to his rebellious attitude and bright red hair.
Damon’s short, declarative sentences paint his life with a wry sense of humor and an artist’s eye. A love interest has “grey manga eyes.” When Damon talks about finding opportunities to make out with girls in middle school, he says, “We were too young yet to do anything in cars like normal kids, but where there’s a will there’s a couch.” Kingsolver even manages to communicate to the reader things Damon doesn’t know. When he explains to a friend that he was born in the amniotic sac, she says, “You were born in the caul.”
“Yeah, that,” he replies, not understanding. “I had the call.”
Being born in the caul is just the beginning of Damon’s, well, Dickensian life. His father dies before he is born; his alcoholic, pill-addicted teen mother struggles to raise him; his stepfather abuses him; his mother ODs on his 11th birthday; he is shipped off to various horrifying foster care placements, where he’s neglected, underfed and exploited; by fifth grade, he’s working in a meth lab — and this is just the first third of the book.
This chockablock plot is slowed down by Damon being a relatively passive protagonist, unable or unwilling to direct his own fate. Yet this makes sense when you think about Kingsolver’s aims. This novel is no Hillbilly Elegy, the best-selling bootstrap Appalachia memoir. While Damon is exceptional in some ways (a tireless worker, a talented artist, socially adept, remarkably resilient), the point is not that he is exceptional but that he is typical. He is meant to be representative. He is not “the one that gets away”; he doesn’t even want to leave; when given the chance to live among a number of places (including some offering more opportunity), he chooses to stay in Lee County, Virginia.
His friends and community largely drive his decision to stay put. Kingsolver laudably rises to the challenge of modernizing David Copperfield’s two-dozen-plus characters. The characters are generally nuanced and vivid, most dealing with similar struggles of circumstance. Interestingly, Kingsolver makes Damon’s steadfast friend Matt “Maggot” Peggot a gay male, though the original character’s equivalent is a straight female. The update works, as the oppression translates. Some of the book’s antagonists are rather two-dimensional, especially pill-pushing pharmaceutical salesman Kent and hulking bully U-Haul, but they ably serve their purpose.
Ironically, while Lee County’s lack of opportunity accounts for many of its residents’ troubles, Damon’s sense of place is one of his main saving graces. He clearly loves his home, Virginia’s westernmost county, sandwiched in between Tennessee and Kentucky. He cherishes the information about the natural world passed down from an elderly neighbor: which mushrooms are edible, which plants are medicinal, which snakes are dangerous. He thrives in the land-based economy where neighbors share and barter, at sea in the city where money is the only currency.
As Damon learns the history of Appalachia and its people, his confidence grows. Kingsolver, who has set several of her novels in her native Appalachia, is occasionally pedantic in delivering this information, planting speeches in the mouth of a preachy teacher, but it’s worth it to witness Damon’s increasing empowerment. He is proud to learn that the word “redneck” derives from the Battle of Blair Mountain, when the coal companies unleashed federal troops against striking miners. The fighting workers signaled their loyalty by wearing red bandannas around their necks. “People calling us rednecks, that goes back to the red bandannas,” Damon says. “Redneck is badass.”
A fellow foster kid helps Damon realize that the struggles of Lee County (and places like it) derive not from individual failure, but from corporate malice. The coal companies deliberately blocked the development of other industries so locals had no choice but to sell their souls to the company store; decades later, Big Pharma stepped in to fill the void.
“They did this to us,” Damon realizes. He ends up writing a graphic novel about this history, turning his newfound pride and knowledge into art.
Kingsolver is clearly trying to humanize a population often demonized by the left. When Damon reclaims the word “hillbilly,” he muses on similarly reclaimed terms: “All down the years, words have been flung like pieces of shit, only to get stuck on a truck bumper with up-yours pride. Rednecks, moonshiners, ridge runners, hicks. Deplorables.” Kingsolver ends the chapter on that last word rather than dealing with its implications, saying little else about electoral politics. This omission seems problematic, and one could argue that Kingsolver’s humanizing sometimes tips into romanticizing.
The story unfolds naturally and rapidly, like a line of dominoes, the various plot points connected, even inevitable in hindsight. The reader sees how addiction is not one moment or one choice, but an immersion so subtle and gradual as to be almost imperceptible. The plot’s one false note is its climax scene; even Damon sees that he’s making a bad choice, and it seems out of character for this model of resilience to be quite so self-destructive. Yet the tragic consequences of this scene give Damon the impetus he needs to get his life together.
Ultimately, like its 19th-century predecessor, Demon Copperhead is a coming-of-age story, so its underlying question is the same as in the original: will our protagonist become the hero of his own life? Will he exercise agency, take action, take charge? It’s probably not a spoiler that the answer is yes.