Review of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver offers an epic story of a faulted, unlikely hero in danger of being crushed by exceptionally difficult circumstances. His golden heart and grit allow him to keep fighting through brokenness, pain, and disappointment in rural Virginia.
Like every boy in Lee County I was raised to be a proud mule in a world that has scant use for mules.
The newest Barbara Kingsolver book, which has been called an Appalachian David Copperfield, is epic. It's 560 pages and driven by the unique voice and gritty, heartbreakingly hopeful, broken voice of Demon (named Damon, a redhead, hence the "Copperhead").
Charles Dickens's experience with extreme poverty in Victorian England inspired him to highlight its cruel impacts on children in his story David Copperfield. That book inspired Demon Copperhead, in which Kingsolver showcases the invisibility of the rural poor in Appalachia as well as a tragic cycle of poverty, drug dependence, and death--with signature Kingsolver characters who have unique voices and are complex, flawed, and irresistible.
"Anyone will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose."
Demon Copperhead is about a young boy born in a rural area of southern Virginia to a teenaged single mom in a single-wide trailer. She is an addict reliant on the wrong men for security and self-esteem. Demon's father is long dead (the circumstances surrounding his death have never been made clear to Demon), and he has little more than a growing, fierce desire for survival, his dad's red hair, and his biting humor to see him through.
Demon's vividly described rural Lee County, Virginia, world is made up of close-knit, imperfect families (with holes in the family tree where various members have died or are in prison), and many branches come with shocking stories that make up the patchwork of family folklore.
The nearby Peggott family is crucial to Demon's life; the extended family includes Demon's best friend, his surrogate grandparents, an aunt he has a crush on but also counts on as a mother figure, and her adopted daughter (her niece), who he adores.
Yet when tragedy strikes the last of his own shaky family, they're unable to take him in and he's sent into foster care, beginning years of hunger, relentless work, the beginnings of his cycle of drug use for escapism, and the destructive impact of general, shocking neglect.
I thought about what Rose said, wanting to see the rest of us hurt, because she was hurting. You have to wonder how much of the whole world's turning is fueled by that very fire.
Glimmers of hope appear from time to time in the form of tragically small, thrilling amounts of money that could offer temporary food security; seemingly reliable sleeping conditions for a time; or the promise of outside figures who might extend a helping hand. But luck is fleeting, and disappointment seems to always come roaring back to cut Demon off at the knees. Any support feels conditional, and Demon learns to mistrust others and to doubt his own worth.
Addiction begins taking over both the story and Demon's life, and Demon Copperhead digs in deeply to explore the destructive trap of oxycodone, meth, and other drugs--the cycle of poverty, addiction, the lure of zonking out, the physical dependence, the desperation of achieving a fix, and the death and destroyed families left in the wake of it all.
Everything I looked at made my eyes water. It felt like being in love with somebody that's married. I could never have this. Staying here, alone and sober, was beyond my powers. And I still wanted it with all my hungry parts.
Those around Demon (June, Angus, Emmy, Tommy) see the golden heart inside him even as he is unaware of his promise and his best qualities. I love that their optimistic views of him persist and seem to push through into his consciousness in tiny ways, even in moments when he feels most unlovable and worthy.
What matters in a story is the heart of its hero.
Demon Copperhead is full of unforgettable, broken characters, both likable and not; a richly built, unforgiving, starkly beautiful setting of small-town southern Virginia; and a commentary on poverty, addiction, and greed. Demon's story arc reaches from the legendary conditions of his birth through brushes with death and destruction through to the book's ending.
If you're standing on a small pile of shit, fighting for your one place to stand, God almighty how you fight.
The downward spiral kept going and going, and its grimness took my breath away. Yet Kingsolver keeps Demon's voice strong even as he falters and as everything he has counted on seems swept away. His rock-bottom--it isn't a moment; it feels as though he drags the bottom for years--sets up a situation in which he seems washed clean for some version of a new beginning.
The prospects for Demon's future seem far from neat and perfect, but by the end of the book there are glimmers of hope for our faulted hero.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Barbara Kingsolver is also the author of The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, The Lacuna, Unsheltered, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and other books.