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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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Marilyn

Keeping my emotions in check.
I can’t remember many books that have nearly devastated me reading about this sweet, good child that goes through horrible circumstances most of his life. I grew up in Appalachia. I left. My brother is so tied to our hometown and his “football” life that happened 50 years ago that he can barely leave the area. About 25 years, I drove through that little part of western VA and actually remember thinking that this area has been forsaken. It seemed as if kudzu covered everything, it looked worn out. I looked up the geographic locations mentioned in the book and they exist - even Devil’s Bathtub! I will continue to grieve for the lost children - real and in the book.
Zena Ryder

A wonderful novel — that's also timely and important to read
The first chapter of David Copperfield is titled: "I Am Born."

The opening sentence of Demon Copperhead: "First, I got myself born."

Barbara Kingsolver had wanted to write a novel about the human individuals behind the statistics of the opioid crisis in Appalachia. She'd been thinking for some time about how to do that, and hadn't been satisfied with her ideas. And then she happened to stay in Bleak House, one of the places Charles Dickens had lived in Kent, UK. Dickens inspired her to tell her modern story based on the plot of his old one, David Copperfield.

I've read a handful of Dickens, but not that one. Now it's definitely the next classic I'll read.

In Kingsolver's novel, Demon (nicknames are common in this region, apparently) was born in the caul, and this is what he has to say about that:

"It was a Wednesday this all happened, which supposedly is the bad one. Full of woe etc. Add to that, coming out still inside the fetus ziplock. But. According to Mrs. Peggot there is one good piece of luck that comes with the baggie birth: it's this promise from God that you'll never drown. Specifically. You could still OD, or get pinned to the wheel and charbroiled in your driver's seat, or for that matter blow your own brains out, but the one place where you will not suck your last breath is underwater. Thank you, Jesus."

What a voice! I'm in awe of authors - like Kingsolver, Ruth Ozeki, Ann-Marie MacDonald - who express the voice of their fictional characters so well that it's hard to believe those characters aren't real people.

Here's Demon talking about reading novels: "Likewise the Charles Dickens 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."

The story follows this wonderful character from his childhood to early adulthood, with highs and lows, love and hate, success and failure, kindness and cruelty (plus neglect).

Along with the wonderful characters, the great story (Dickens knew a thing or two about plot), and the brilliant use of language, I also appreciated learning along the way. I learned about Melungeons, the origins of the term "redneck" (it's badass, by the way), the whisky rebellion, Purdue Pharma, mining companies, dopesickness... But never does anything feel like a lecture. Kingsolver is too good a novelist for that.

I hope you'll read this wonderful and important novel.
Power Reviewer
Cloggie Downunder

Moving and thought-provoking: a wonderful read.
Demon Copperhead is the ninth novel by award-winning best-selling American author, Barbara Kingsolver. It’s in August of his eleventh year that life falls apart for Damon Fields. Despite his inauspicious beginning and life in a double-wide trailer with his single mother, his first ten years are happy ones.

With strong Melungeon features, flame red hair, green eyes and darker skin, inherited from a father who died before he was born, Damon soon acquires the name Copperhead, Demon being the natural warp of his given name. A good student with a talent for drawing, he excels at school and enjoys spending his free time with his best friend, Maggot, grandson of his mother’s landlady, Nance Peggot.

The catalyst for change seems to be the arrival into their lives of Murrell Stone, known as Stoner, whom Damon quickly assesses as bad news. That he is a bully, expert in gaslighting, is soon obvious: “Mom took up with a guy that believed in educating with his fists, that bullied and brainwashed her till the day she died.”

By the time he arrives in his father’s hometown in Tennessee, the now-eleven-year-old has suffered the physical and psychological abuse of his new step-father, lost his pregnant mother, been fostered out into two differently neglectful homes, done hard physical labour, worked an illegal job, missed school to harvest tobacco, been half-starved, and robbed.

From there, the story follows Demon’s rollercoaster fortunes in life: patronage from his paternal grandmother, a football coach and an art teacher; recognition of his talents and abilities; injury and drug addiction; the deterioration and loss of people close to him. He proves to be resilient, and eventually learns that not all the people he chooses end up being true friends.

With her reinvented David Copperfield set in modern-day Appalachia, Kingsolver illustrates the potent impact on young lives of the poor choices that people themselves make, or are made by those charged with their care, often when there is, realistically, no choice at all.

When those people in his life who have good intentions but no means are unable to step up, her protagonist ends up at the mercy of people rorting the welfare system for their own gain or merely their survival, under the supposed care of poorly-paid and under-resourced people stuck in a poorly funded and disorganised system. All of this will feel wholly realistic to those with experience of said system.

Shown, too, is the Appalachian(?) mindset perpetuated by some teachers at less well-off schools that their students lack the intelligence to compete academically with richer schools. This can result is students believing, often to their detriment, injury-wise, that sport or unskilled labour is their only option. Credibly presented is the casually indiscriminate use of prescribed narcotics in teens with its ensuing downward spiral into addiction, and also the power of the intelligent cartoon.

Damon’s feels like an authentic voice which gives the story added credibility. Kingsolver gives her young protagonist insight: “A mean side to people comes out at such times, where their only concern is what did the misfortunate person do to put themselves in their sorry fix. They’re building a wall to keep out the bad luck.”

And makes him perceptive: “A dead parent is a tricky kind of ghost. If you can make it into more like a doll, putting it in the real house and clothes and such that they had, it helps you to picture them as a person instead of just a person-shaped hole in the air. Which helps you feel less like a person-shaped invisible kid.”

And, of course, the reader can rely on Kingsolver for gorgeous descriptive prose: “I found a good rock and watched the sun melt into the Cumberlands. Layers of orange like a buttermilk pie cooling on the horizon. Clouds scooting past, throwing spots of light and dark over the mountainheads. The light looked drinkable. It poured on a mountain so I saw the curve of every treetop edged in gold, like the scales of a fish. Then poured off, easing them back into shadow.”

Many of Dickens’ characters are easily identifiable by their slightly altered names and roles; several are sterling characters, although the one with that name is the polar opposite. Those familiar with it will find elements of the story somewhat reminiscent of AB Facey’s memoir A Fortunate Life. Included is a bonus essay revealing Kingsolver’s inspiration for this tale. Moving and thought-provoking: a wonderful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Faber & Faber.
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