Circulation Manager Pamela Parker recommends Demon Copperhead: A Tale Retold by Barbara Kingsolver
Best known for the parallels to Charles Dicken’s 1850 semi-autobiographic novel, David Copperfield (1850), Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Demon Copperhead (2022), recounts a boy’s coming-of-age in Appalachia during the height of the opioid epidemic, which ran at its worst from 2007-2016.
Kingsolver’s work takes us to Lee County, Virginia, where Demon “got himself born” on the bathroom floor of a backwoods trailer. His mother is an opiate addict who soon overdoses, leaving Demon stranded between a dumb, abusive stepfather and a highly dysfunctional foster-care system. Demon’s first-person narrative follows his life experiences during a time when his rural community faces the brutal fallout of widespread drug use as he’s approaching adulthood.
He’s first placed with the McCombs family who run a foster home where boys are put to work to bring in extra cash. From trash sorting to tobacco picking, Demon describes in vivid detail the realities of his childhood labor. He eventually finds his way into the sprawling Winfield family, who like the Peggotty family in Dicken’s life, become a much-needed refuge. He starts attending school regularly, and Coach Winfield introduces him to football. The strong, red-headed Demon becomes a star running back for his high school. But soon enough his strength is tested beyond the physical. He meets Dori, whose bedridden father gets easy access to prescription opioids, and this leads them toward the inevitable.
I read this 2023 Pulitzer Prize winning novel in one stretch and found it totally engaging. Demon’s humor and point-blank storytelling are hard to put down.
His brutal honesty as he ‘tells all’ about the goings on makes one grateful for being from elsewhere but also able to connect with the challenges they face. I also began to care about this place I’ve never been, and the unique individuals that make up his world. His creative use of nicknames, like Stoner for his hapless stepfather, Fast Forward, his unscrupulous dealer friend, and Creaky, the old man who runs a farm where foster boys pick tobacco is priceless.
As we cringe for him and this band of misfits and has-beens, we really want to know if the human spirit can endure such hard odds – and the answer is apparently ‘yes’ if we are to believe Kingsolver. I do suggest that you buckle up for a fast ride through some dangerous curves of Virginia’s poorest rural counties. It’s an exceptional work of contemporary fiction by one of the nation’s most gifted writers but the grittiest aspects of the story aren’t always easy going.
Barbara Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky and now makes her home in Appalachia. Known for themes of environmentalism and social justice, she has found a second wind with Demon Copperhead (2022). Her other works include The Bean Trees (1988), Poisonwood Bible (1998) and a nonfiction account of her family’s effort to return to locally sourced eating, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007). She has been awarded the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this most recent novel among other accolades.
On Wednesday, October 4, at 5:30 pm, The Community Library Book Club will host a discussion of Demon Copperhead, and all are invited to join in. Sign up here!