“First I got myself born” - and with that line we are introduced to our young narrator Damon Fields, known as Demon Copperhead for the fiery red hair that is his only inheritance from an absent father. Demon has learned to rely on himself and expect nothing much from life. His voice rings through the opening pages, cynical and world weary beyond his years.
This re-imagining of Dickens’ David Copperfield is set in the broken-down ex mining communities of the Appalachian Mountains. Young Demon at first reminds us of Huck Finn running wild and sharing adventures with his best friend Maggot, but soon his limited luck runs out as his young mother marries someone with no interest in taking on another man’s child. When his mother is driven back to her opioid addiction, our young hero finds himself thrown onto the mercy of an inadequate foster system. His experiences of being rejected and exploited by poor families using him to raise extra cash through fostering, seem hopeless and bleak but what keeps us turning the page is that underneath Demon’s world weariness and misery is a desperate yearning for something better. Kingsolver’s skill is in making us yearn alongside him. We want nothing more than this boy to find some love and care in a world that so often rejects him.
Kingsolver’s mastery is not just that she has written a character we want to succeed but within these pages she throws a harsh spotlight on the issues that lead to children like Demon being abandoned. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ seeking to highlight the gruesome poverty of Victorian England and the fate of abandoned orphans seeking their place in the world. The wheel of fortune that dictates where you are born and from that fact everything else good or bad will surely follow.
The author writes of the people she knows and the communities she grew up in. They are so often mocked and maligned, written off as rednecks or ignorant MAGA converts. Kingsolver wants us to understand it’s not that simple. There are good reasons why people chose to believe a rich man spouting lies.
These communities in Virginia are in thrall to the large mining or tobacco industries with no means of escape. Those industries own the schools and the public services. They educate the youth just enough to work their jobs but never enough to challenge the system that put them there. Many of these towns or communities have been abandoned as the mines close down and all that is left is a hopeless wishing for them to come back. With no way out, and very little work to do, people choose to numb their pain through alcohol or prescription drugs doled out by willing physicians and representatives from large pharmaceutical companies. Everything feels better at least for a few hours.
This opioid epidemic takes a harsh toll on Demon’s life sweeping up his mother and later his girlfriend Dori. Throughout everything the world can throw at him, Demon keeps on going. He is unbreakable, emotionally resilient as people keep failing him over and over again. It seems inevitable that eventually he will suffer one blow too many and stay down. As we root for him to get back up and keep praying that he will survive and get to realise his dream of visiting the ocean.
Demon Copperhead is a stunning piece of work. Kingsolver’s storytelling is masterful yet always demanding justice for a community that has been abandoned and mocked, for boys like Demon caught up in the resulting opioid epidemic and the abject failure of a foster system that simply doesn’t care. We yearn for Demon’s happiness as if it were our own and by the final page of this book, we rage at the injustice of wealthy corporations who walk away leaving only the wreckage of people’s lives behind them.
I recommend this book to everyone for the incredible writing, the wonderful storytelling and a genuinely thought-provoking read. Great books make you think differently about the world once you’ve put them down and Demon Copperhead certainly does that.
Demon Copperhead is published by Faber & Faber.
See also: Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered, reviewed by Anna Wilson
Julie Owen-Moylan's That Green-Eyed Girl is published by Michael Joseph.