If there are “celebrity” writers, Barbara Kingsolver has to be at the top of the list. Her 1988 novel “The Bean Trees” put her on the literary map, but it was “The Poisonwood Bible” a decade later, about a family of Southern Baptist missionaries in 1960s Congo, that became an Oprah Book Club pick, sold 5 million copies, and made her a star. She has had close to 20 books published and, since the late 1980s, her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have involved big themes including Trump’s America (“Unsheltered,” 2018), climate change (“Flight Behavior,” 2012), McCarthyism (“The Lacuna,” 2009) and colonialism in “The Poisonwood Bible.” Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership around the globe. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, as well as the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work. I think she’s brilliant and deserves every accolade she’s received.
Her latest gut-wrenching novel is “Demon Copperhead,” set in the 1990s and early 2000s, in the mountains of southwest Virginia at the onset of the opioid epidemic. It’s the story of a boy born to a single teenaged mother in a run-down trailer. There’s nothing in his favor except his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a razor-sharp wit, and a ferocious ability for survival. In a plot that seems to never pause for breath, told in his own unsparing voice, he endures the modern dangers of foster care, child labor, dilapidated schools, athletic success, addiction, ill-fated loves and devastating losses.
What’s so amazing about the book is that it’s a reimagining of “David Copperfield,” written in 1850 by Charles Dickens. A literature classic, it was inspired by Dicken’s own awful upbringing navigating poverty, child labor, criminal injustices, absent adults, abusive schools and other failings of Victorian England. Many of these issues are just as relevant today and they hit close to home for Kingsolver. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in rural Appalachia, a region exploited by the coal and tobacco industries and disproportionately devastated by the opioid epidemic. Enlisting Dickens’s rage and compassion, Kingsolver, in her book, paints a powerful portrait of modern Appalachian life and gives voice to a new generation of lost boys in a beautiful, historically troubled place. A place they can’t imagine leaving behind.
The “Demon” of the title is Damon Fields, Damon (with an “a”), the first-person narrator of his life story. Demon is the nickname he is saddled with, though he couldn’t be further from one. And Copperhead, not for the snake, but from his copper-penny hair. He is wise beyond his years and innocent at the same time. Born into miserable poverty, by the time his mother can legally drink, she is already three years into AA. Demon never knew his father, who died under mysterious circumstances. He watches his mother struggle, doing her best to hang on to her Walmart job “through all restocks of the seasonal aisles: Halloween costumes, Santa crap, Valentines, Easter candy, folding lawn chairs.” She has a drawer full of sobriety chips that she takes out at night and looks over “like a dragon sitting on its treasure.” Their trailer community in Lee County is a place where the opioid crisis is a huge part of daily life; where family, friends and neighbors disappear into addiction.
Despite his situation, Demon’s has a fairly happy early childhood, spent roaming the woods with his friend Matthew (inevitably dubbed “Maggot”) and being doted on by his mother – when she’s not in rehab. Everything comes to a tumbling down when she marries a truck driver named Stoner. A wretched man, he horribly abuses his wife and stepson. “I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” Demon tells readers at one point. “Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”
Demon’s mother dies on his 11th birthday. It’s from an overdose of something the boy has never heard of: OxyContin. He’ll hear a lot more about it as he grows up in the 1990s, and his mother won’t be the last person he loses to it.
Demon ends up in foster care, aware of falling even lower in the pecking order, passed around inside a broken system where nobody seems to want him. “Where in some universes you get reward chips for going X many days without drinking, in ours you got chips for getting through a day unhated.” The local system’s handling of older kids and teens is actually a form of slave labor, placing them in situations where they do dangerous and exhausting work for no pay. Demon’s jobs, while he’s still a preteen, include stripping freshly harvested tobacco, so toxic its sap can burn through clothing and flesh, and sorting giant heaps of household trash for profitable recyclables, a business that’s a side gig for a meth dealer. In one foster home, he sleeps on the laundry room floor and is underfed to the point of starvation. Like David Copperfield and so many other kids raised in poverty, Demon has a keen sense of social status and wealth, and of his own place in that hierarchy: “I was a lowlife,” he says, “born in the mobile home, so that’s like the Eagle Scout of trailer trash.”
Finally, desperate Demon runs away, hitching hiking to Tennessee in search of his paternal grandmother, whom he knows only from his mother’s hair-raising stories. Betsy Woodall is odd but loving in her own peculiar way. She turns Demon’s luck around, finding him a foster home where his guardian is the football coach for the local high school. Coach Winfield’s teams win games, so he has the status of a god on earth. He sees linebacker potential in Demon, even though he’s not yet 12 years old. There’s the coach’s daughter, Angus, too. Unlike Demon’s earlier crush, teasing and manipulative Emmy (one of Maggot’s countless cousins), Angus is brutally honest, and unlike almost everyone else he knows, her goal is to go to college and move to a city, something unthinkable to Demon.
As a popular athlete, and encouraged by an art teacher to draw comics, Demon enjoys a bit of happiness. Then he injures his knee, and the doctor assures him that it can be fixed. “The prescription would hold me until then. I stopped caring around this point because the little white submarine-shaped pill he’d given me to swallow was starting to sing its pretty song in my head. Cool relief, baby, let’s you and me go cruising Main. Just hold my hand. Lortab was her name. Blessed, blessed lady.” Demon’s journey into addiction, following in his mother’s footsteps and beyond, takes a traumatic path through love and betrayal, violence and redemption.
Although “David Copperfield” was part of the inspiration for this great novel, it won’t matter if you haven’t read it. “Demon Copperhead” stands on its own. With her acerbic wit, Kingsolver winks at the connection when Demon is assigned to read Dickens’s novel. He’s impressed with the “…seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.” Dickens, however, is not the only literary ghost drifting throughout the book. Demon’s voice, by turns hopeful and weary, naive and knowing, heartbreaking and hilarious, calls to mind a few of the most unforgettable narrators in American literature: Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caufield. Like Mark Twain’s orphan, and Salinger’s lost boy, Demon gets under your skin and keeps us on his side with his compassion and courage, even in the darkest of hours.