A review of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Demon Copperhead
by Barbara Kingsolver
October 2022, Hardcover, 560 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0063251922

Barbara Kingsolver, the prize-winning author of many outstanding novels, including The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna, and Flight Behaviour, sets her new novel, Demon Copperhead, in 1990s Appalachia. The central and southern portions of the Appalachian mountain range include the Catskill Mountains of New York, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.  There, the American dream has gone “rotten,” says  Kingsolver’s central character, Damon Field, a.k.a. Demon Copperhead.

Demon Copperhead is a remarkable retelling of Charles Dickens’s classic Victorian novel, David Copperfield. In her acknowledgements, Kingsolver expresses her gratitude to Dickens for writing this “impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society…[I]n adapting his novel to my own place and time…I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.”

Many novelists have retold classics from bygone eras. One thinks of Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear in A Thousand Acres and Curtis Sittenfeld transforming Pride and Prejudice into Eligible. The fun in reading adaptations lies in seeing how the characters turn out in a new setting, and whether or not the author retains the theme of the original classic.

Readers familiar with Dickens’ David Copperfield recall that David was the posthumous son of a well-to-do father who died in middle age, leaving David and his vulnerable mother behind. Suffering in several unsatisfactory living arrangements, David’s goals are not only to survive, but also to return to the middle class world. His tone is earnest and serious-minded, not cynical.

In contrast, Demon Copperhead was born to a single eighteen year old drug addict living in a rented house trailer on a neighbour’s property. In Demon’s words, his mother had already been in Alcoholics Anonymous for three years before she reached legal drinking age.

“The day I was born,” he writes, “her baby daddy’s mother turned up out of the blue,”  to take custody of him.  Demon’s mom orders her out, but dreads loss of custody so much that she “gives her all in rehab” in order to keep Demon.  Damon was nicknamed “Demon” as a baby, and later on, in school, was called “Copperhead” because of his red hair.  “Copperheads” are also venomous pit-vipers native to Appalachia. These nicknames suit a narrator/protagonist with a colloquial, frank, irreverent voice, who is more Huck Finn than David Copperfield.

Kingsolver takes her engaging young narrator through Dickens’s major plot points. In Dickens’s novel, David’s troubles begin when his mother marries Mr. Murdstone; similarly, Demon’s life takes a downturn after his mom meets Murrell Stone in Walmart. Stone, nicknamed “Stoner,” seems to be a catch (his job as truck-driver for a brewing company includes medical and dental coverage for Demon and his mother), but he turns out to be an abusive bully toward the young boy and his mom. He forbids Demon to contact his playmate, Matt,  claiming that Matt is a bad influence because he’s a “little faggot” with a jailbird mother. Stoner’s cruelty drives Demon’s mother back to drugs and ultimately to an overdose.

Matt’s grandmother, Mrs. Peggott, is an update of  “Peggotty,” the kindly household helper of Dickens’s novel. She takes Demon under her wing, treating him like another grandson.  She and her husband, “Peg,” have grown-up children and a large extended family. With Matt, nicknamed “Maggot,” Demon enjoys an active outdoor life on the Peggotts’s land, and learns from Mr. Peggott how to hunt. Demon thinks Mrs. Peggott is his grandmother:

“I thought all kids got a mammaw, along with a caseworker and free school lunch and the canned beanie-weenies they gave you in a bag to take home for weekends. Like ‘assigned.’” As a child, he doesn’t realize he and his mother are poor.Eventually Demon meets the Peggotts’s  adult daughter, June, one of several strong women characters in Kingsolver’s novel, and a wise presence who helps Demon when he is at a low ebb. June is raising her late brother’s child, a girl named “Emmy”  while working full time as an ER nurse in Knoxville, Tennessee, and studying to be a nurse practitioner. She then returns to Lee County to heal the people she grew up with.  In Dickens’s novel, seaman Daniel Peggotty persists in his effort to rescue his adopted daughter, Little Em’ly, and in Kingsolver’s novel, June plays this role with Emmy.

After his mother’s death, Demon becomes a client of  the Department of Social Services (DSS).  One of his case workers, a young woman named “Miss Bark,” genuinely cares about children, like “Barkis” in David Copperfield. She does her best for Demon, but has too many clients  for too few foster homes.

Demon’s first placement is on a subsistence farm, where, at age ten, he is expected to tend livestock and help with the tobacco harvest. Though Mr. Crickson, the elderly widower farmer, exploits and neglects him, Demon learns a useful life lesson from  him. When Demon asks why the farmer has ‘Hillbilly Cadillac’ painted on his truck, the old man tells him that “hillbilly” is like the “N-word”, a pejorative, negative label.

“Other people made up ‘hillbilly’ to use on us…but they gave us a superpower by accident,” says Crickson. “Saying that word back to people proves they can’t ever be us, and we are untouchable by their shit.”  Wearing a negative label proudly is one way of fighting back in an unjust world.

At the farm, Demon meets an older foster child,  Sterling Ford, a.k.a. “Fast Forward”. Sixteen years of age when Demon first meets him, Fast Forward is handsome, athletic and charming, using his compelling (perhaps sociopathic) personality to extort money and candy from the younger children. He hosts a “farm” party for them, which is actually a “pharm” party, at which they take pills.  Fast Forward’s original character, “Steerforth” in  Dickens’s novel, is the pampered son of a middle class widowed mother, but in Kingsolver’s story, he is just another orphan trying to survive by using the talents he has.   Both Fast Forward and Steerforth cause a lot of misery before they meet similarly dramatic ends.

Demon’s next foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. McCobb  are not the impecunious but good-hearted, loveable Micawbers of Dickens’s novel. Mr. McCobb keeps trying and failing at get-rich-quick small business ventures, and although he and his wife profess to care about Demon, they pocket the stipend the state pays them for his keep and fail to provide him with the necessities of life. After Demon steals from their junk-food stash, they get him a part-time job (he’s eleven) at a mini-market/ garbage dump/ secret meth lab run by a newcomer to the U.S., Mr. Golly.  A “dalet” in India, (member of the untouchable caste) Mr. Golly is kind to Demon and feels fortunate to be in the U.S.A. Demon begins to think that his fellow “hillbillies” of Appalachia are the “dalet” class in America.

“It is vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present,” wrote Dickens in David Copperfield. The British 19th century poor he depicts in his novel were casualties of the transition from a land-based economy to industrial capitalism.  In Kingsolver’s novel, the reader becomes aware of the  waves of exploitation that have taken place in Appalachia.  Originally a region of small farmers, this part of the U.S. first encountered capitalism in the form of big coal companies buying up land, paying low wages for dangerous work, and  keeping out other industries so as to have a monopoly on cheap labour.  The miners went on strike for decent pay and conditions; the  unions secured them some gains, but, by the 1990s, coal mining is in decline and the new businesses that have started up, like Walmart, are not unionized.

Tobacco farming was once subsidized by the U.S. government, but when smoking was found to be carcinogenic, the assistance was removed, leaving farmers facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. Because of high unemployment, military recruiters have found in Appalachia a plentiful source of soldiers to fight in Vietnam and subsequent wars.  In the 1990s, big pharmaceutical companies profited from the health issues of people in the region by encouraging the use of addictive painkillers such as oxycontin. We see a youth with a football injury, who has to travel to another state to get an MRI, killing his pain with prescription medication while continuing to play the game. School boards spend a large proportion of their budgets on football and starve academics and the creative arts.

Though Demon hits bottom, he rises again and, by the novel’s end, is pursuing an artistic activity that subverts the status quo and earns him some money. The open ending  shows Demon fulfilling a long-term aspiration, accompanied by a friend with great strength of character.

Demon hopes to live his life in Lee County, VA, where he can enjoy nature, where he has some friends, and where some community solidarity, though weakened, still exists.  This community spirit is shown by Peg Peggotty’s funeral, a warm affair with  friends and neighbours sharing stories and memories of the deceased. While churches don’t feature prominently in the novel, readers may notice that they do some charitable work on behalf of children.

Dickens’ novel suggests that the answers to the huge social problems of Victorian England lay in personal endurance, generosity, goodwill and domestic happiness. In Kingsolver’s novel we see these virtues alive in Appalachia, along with the attitude that it is better to be self-sufficient than to impose on neighbours or “be beholden” to them.   While R.D Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, blames poverty and degradation on people’s lack of moral fibre, Kingsolver’s novel implies that the culprit is the negative effects of large-scale private enterprise imposed from outside the region.

Her novel hints at government programs that could help the economy of the region and the well-being of the people in it.  For instance, readers can see from the story that recovering addicts need long-term rehabilitation programs, not those that last only a couple of weeks.  And if  small freeholder agriculture was sustainable when the government subsidized tobacco-growing, the family farm and its way of life close to nature could be revitalized by subsidization of other less dangerous farm endeavours.

Through a radical teacher depicted in her novel, Kingsolver shows that if people are to awaken and act to make their lives better, they must first know their history. Although her story has a specific regional setting, all readers who have experienced life in a depressed area (Northeastern Ontario, Canada, being one example) will see a similarity between their communities and Demon Copperhead’s environment. He is the kind of central character that readers want to cheer for.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta grew up in Northeastern Ontario, Canada.  Her new novel, A Striking Woman, (Ottawa, Baico, 2023, info@baico.ca) was inspired by the life of a Canadian woman trade unionist.