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Demon Copperhead

A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver X
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
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  • Published:
    Oct 2022, 560 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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A retelling of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield set in modern-day Appalachia

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead is a captivating coming-of-age tale set in rural Virginia. Her protagonist, Damon Fields (aka Demon Copperhead for his fiery temperament and red hair), narrates his life’s story, beginning with his inauspicious birth in a mobile home. On the path to adulthood he encounters adversity as well as the occasional lucky break and more than a few surprises.

I confess I usually find the bildungsroman genre challenging, primarily because these novels' story arcs tend, by their very nature, to follow a predictable pattern. Consequently only a truly exceptional entry in the genre will make its way onto my reading list; Demon Copperfield is such a book.

First and foremost, the novel’s narrator is one of the most fully developed, multi-faceted characters I’ve encountered in a very long time — no easy task when a story is told entirely in the first person. Demon’s singular voice claims to be a worthless, throwaway individual (“the Eagle Scout of trailer trash”), while at the same time exhibiting admirable self-reliance and a steely determination to rise above his circumstances even when so much lies beyond his control. He’s a clear-headed survivor who will undoubtedly succeed in the end.

Kingsolver’s writing, too, is stellar. Her prose brilliantly captures the rhythm and humor of rural Appalachian speech. In telling the story of his birth, for example, Demon colorfully relays the role played by his neighbors:

Mr. Peggot was outside idling his truck, headed for evening service, probably thinking about how much of his life he’d spent waiting on women. His wife would have told him the Jesusing could hold on a minute, first she needed to go see if the little pregnant gal had got herself liquored up again. Mrs. Peggot being a lady that doesn’t beat around the bushes and if need be, will tell Christ Jesus to sit tight and keep his pretty hair on.

Finally, the story itself is riveting. When confronted by other hefty novels (this one tops out at nearly 600 pages), I often find myself thinking they could have used a good editor. Not so here; the plot moves along quickly, and I never once felt it was a slog. I enjoyed each and every word and found myself consistently eager to get back to the story.

As you might have guessed, Demon Copperhead is a contemporary retelling of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, spanning the late 1990s to the present day; and perhaps hidden inside the book's title Kingsolver has included a subtle nod to Dickens himself, because in the 19th century dickens was a euphemism for the devil, as in "what the dickens", which is why Dickens initially wrote under the pseudonym of "Boz."

Attempting to rewrite such a well-known, beloved work is either very brave or foolhardy, but Kingsolver achieves the impossible, creating a narrative that stands up to its source material and, by some measures, may even surpass it. The plots certainly share a lot of similarities (e.g., both boys’ mothers get involved with abusive men) but Kingsolver tailors the details to make them more appropriate to the time or place (David works in a wine-bottling business, for example, while Demon harvests tobacco). Each also has, at its core, the central theme of weak, helpless individuals being mercilessly taken advantage of by those in power. Kingsolver’s themes go beyond Dickens’, however, addressing opioid and other drug addiction while condemning both “Big Pharma” and the US healthcare system. Although Kingsolver incorporates many clever nods to the original (Uriah Heap becomes Ryan “U-Haul” Pyle, Agnus is named Angus, etc.) readers need not be familiar with David Copperfield to fully appreciate Demon Copperhead. Those who do know the Dickens novel, though, will likely get a kick out of how Kingsolver adapts the plot to a new time, place and set of social circumstances.

I have no doubt that Demon Copperhead will spend weeks at the top of bestseller lists, and deservedly so; the novel is nothing short of excellent and may well be Kingsolver’s best work to date. It’s a must-read for the author’s legions of fans, and certainly those who enjoy well-constructed, entertaining literary fiction will want to pick up a copy.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review will run in the November 16, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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