Friday, November 4, 2022


I read for pleasure (and as part of my education as a writer) on a daily basis. I probably go through a book every week or ten days. But I’m a slacker when it comes to reviews, as Goodreads keeps reminding me. So many books, so little time!

Still, I just finished an extraordinary book that was both outside my usual wheelhouse and so thought-provoking I just have to talk about it: Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a reworking of David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, set in Lee County, Virginia, an actual place in the mountains of Southern Appalachia at the very southwest tip of that state.

So, right away, this book had two things going for it for me: It’s set in a place I’m very familiar with. My family is from Southeast West Virginia, just across the state line from Lee County, not far from Tazewell, which sits astride the state boundary. I knew just about every town and landmark Kingsolver mentioned, not to mention the Appalachian culture she described. Secondly, I’m a huge fan of Dickens. I’ve read David Copperfield several times. You don’t have to have read that classic to enjoy this book, but it’s fun to recognize the names (protagonist Damon Fields’s aka Demon’s kindly neighbors the Peggotts for Copperfield’s Aunt and Uncle Peggotty; the Golden Boy Fast Forward for Steerforth; Emmy for Little Em’ly, Uhaul Pyles for Uriah Heep, his eventual love Agnes, who goes by Angus, and so on).

Damon, the hero of our story, is born to a teenage single mother without resources, living in a single wide on the Peggotts' land. In the way of boys everywhere, because he has red hair, he earns the moniker Demon Copperhead before he even hits grade school. Mom drinks and drugs and all too soon succumbs to a new plague hitting the mountains—oxycontin. “God help me,” Demon says. “I had to ask what it was.”

At the time of her death, Mom was married to a man named Stoner, who was both abusive and neglectful. Kingsolver describes what it’s like to live in the house with him with a phrase I’ll never forget: “four walls of hate and knuckles for breakfast.” The book is full of phrases like that, words that take your breath away, images as sharp as broken glass.

The result is that Demon, without known relatives or anyone to speak for him, is propelled into the uncaring churn of the foster care system where he is used as cheap labor, starved and abused as punishment and introduced (by an older, apparently wiser Fast Forward) to the escapist pleasures of drugs. He entertains his fellow foster boys with drawings of superhero comics and dreams of finding his father’s grave. Or maybe, one day, seeing the ocean. If he survives.

Eventually he escapes his foster situation and finds his grandmother and great uncle, who place him in a better guardian situation. Things start to look up. Two teachers at his middle and high school mentor him in art and English, and he takes up football, at which he excels. Football is the path to glory at Lee High, and for a brief shining moment he is no longer the foster kid with the too-small clothes and bad hygiene. But he suffers a career-ending knee injury, and like so many others with back injuries, bad knees and arthritis from working the mines in rural Appalachia, he ends up on another kind of road due to pain pills—the road to ruin.

Some of this story is hard to read, despite Demon’s clear and distinctive voice and our desire to root for him. But like Dickens’s David Copperfield, Demon prevails in the end. He frees himself from the chains holding him back and even finds love in the end.

Like Dickens, Kingsolver has a lot to say in the book about the causes of poverty in Appalachia. Some of the reviewers I’ve read are critical of her “stereotypes” of Appalachian people as “drug addicts, drug dealers, criminals and violent.” There are those people in the book, but there are also the very decent Peggotts, Demon’s grandmother and great uncle, Betsy and Mr. Dick, the storeowner Mr. Ghali, Demon’s teachers (who had chosen to live in Lee County despite the prejudice thrown at them) and so on.

Kingsolver’s social theories are threaded throughout the book but are most clearly spelled out through the now-educated foster boy Tommy’s emails to Demon about how the people of Appalachia have always been exploited by the “money classes.” First by the extraction of timber, then coal, now as a market for oxy. The taxes on liquor that go back to the Whiskey Rebellion, when the only way to get the one crop that would grow in the mountains—corn—to market profitably was to distill it into liquor (moonshine). The universal prejudice in the media going back forever against ignorant hillbillies, a prejudice that no one protests because presumably there’s something you can do about your ignorance and your accent. Well, Tommy points out, there’s a reason for our underfunded schools and our isolation, too, and it has more to do with the grip the coal companies have had on local governments than the will of the people.

Demon Copperhead hits the mark on so many levels—characters, plot, important themes and writing that will stick with you for weeks. This one is a must-read if you really want to understand this part of the country.

Cheers, Donna

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