Appalachian survival: ‘Demon Copperhead’ is a riveting, epic tale

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” re-imagines Dickens’ “David Copperfield” as a story of survival set in the Appalachian Mountains.

"Demon Copperhead" by Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins Publishers, 560 pp.

Bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver opens her latest release, “Demon Copperhead,” with a quote from Charles Dickens: “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”

Taken from Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” the quote might be viewed as a challenge: Kingsolver does recall the past as she gives us a contemporary retelling of Dickens’ 19th-century classic. Hers is another story about a boy who struggles against unimaginable odds in the midst of a community that regularly fails him, a boy who not only survives but achieves a measure of success. But rather than Victorian England, Kingsolver sets her tale in contemporary Appalachia.

One needn’t have read Dickens to appreciate Kingsolver’s novel, as the book stands well on its own. But with each unfolding chapter, the connection between the two brings home the fact that, more than 150 years later, there are still clever, self-reliant young people who must defy their circumstances simply to live. Kingsolver’s dedication in the book reads: “For the survivors.”

Damon Fields, aka “Demon Copperhead,” is one of these children, and he provides the eloquent and frequently humorous voice of this story. Copperhead refers to his flaming red hair, which is about the only thing his father gave him. The man was long gone before the boy was born. Damon lives with his drug-addicted mother in a single-wide trailer owned by the Peggot family, who lives across the road. 

Motherly Mrs. Peggot keeps an eye on things at the trailer, knowing, as she does, that Damon’s mother isn’t capable of taking care of herself, let alone a child. From too young an age, Damon realizes this, too. But the Peggots provide Damon with a kind of extended family, offering acceptance and even affection to a boy who longs to be loved. They generously share what they have while they navigate their own challenges. But this is Lee County, Virginia. It is home. As Damon observes, “Most families would sooner forgive you for going to prison than for moving out of Lee County.” 

On his 11th birthday, Damon’s mother dies of an overdose, which sends the grieving boy into Lee County’s woefully inadequate foster care system. As this is tobacco country, orphaned boys are viewed by some foster parents as free labor that comes with a monthly stipend from the county. The social workers responsible for the children’s welfare lack the necessary resources and, though they care, are simply not up to the task. Ever the survivor, Damon and the other boys learn to rely on one another. “We were our own messed-up little tribe,” he observes. 

Undeniably, the book can be challenging to read and, frankly, it is not going to suit everyone. Aside from the profanity and compromising situations, it depicts heartbreaking circumstances imposed upon people already beset by severe challenges. It tells of children neglected by the families who are supposed to love them and failed by the agencies that are supposed to protect them, of too many lives lost to the opioids that flood the region.

Yet, in the midst of this heartache, we meet people whose talents and abilities allow them to reach beyond expectations. Their individuality lifts them above their circumstances. The love expressed by family and those who look upon one another as family is sometimes enough to sustain people. And there is a pride of place, a sense of belonging, and a strength that comes with community. 

Kingsolver, who grew up in Kentucky and currently lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, gives the community a voice as she infuses the bleak tale with a depth that brings warmth, humor, and dignity to the characters. She empowers them to speak for themselves as she illuminates the motives and goals that allow some to succeed while others perish.

For many readers, sticking with the book is time well spent: Her exquisite writing takes a wrenching story and makes it worthwhile. The details are difficult, but they are never gratuitous. She thrusts the reader into the midst of real-world circumstances – especially the opioid epidemic – and she compassionately demands that we not look away. 

That inclination to turn away, of course, is one of the reasons that many of these societal problems endure. After all, this is a modern take on a novel written over 150 years ago. “Demon Copperhead” begins with an admonition to use the story to influence the present. Kingsolver has given us a superb novel; what we do with its insights she leaves to each of us to decide.

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