Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Published by Harper
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Cultural, Literary
Barbara Kingsolver is back with Demon Copperhead, a serpentine tour-de-force set in the southern Appalachian Mountains. A modern-day David Copperfield, the novel follows Damon Fields from his ignominious birth in a trailer to a single, teenage mother doped out of her mind, all the way through his teens. It’s not a journey for the faint of heart, but the world Kingsolver builds is potent in its power.
Damon is soon nicknamed Demon, not for any bad behavior on his part, but because everyone in his world is known by nicknames. His best friend and neighbor is Maggot and they live and play in the natural world of forests, streams, mud…the best places for little boys, but not a great place for adults, as tobacco farming and coal mining are the biggest employers. Maggot’s family gives Demon what little stability he experiences. His mother kicks drugs, but works long hours at Walmart, and often forgets her little boy is just that, a little boy. At 10 he’s more her caretaker and confidante than her child.
Mom would light me a cigarette and we’d have our chats, menthols of course, this being in her mind the child-friendly option.
Kingsolver chooses Demon as the only teller of his tale and in doing so, slips into his skin to the point that it’s hard to remember Demon Copperhead is fiction. This is 560 pages from inside one boy for whom the cracks in the system are chasms. The system—of politics, governance, the economy, services has abandoned these mountains leaving behind addiction, crime, loneliness, violence, and abuse. As Demon brushes up against these issues he’s constantly reminded he is worthless. The words and actions of the adults around him fester until his unusual height and his gift for drawing make him stand out as someone of value. And then the wheel turns again.
The cycle in Demon Copperhead is vicious and makes the reading wearying at points. Experiencing the hopelessness of a group of people left me feeling uncomfortably like a trauma tourist, rubbernecking someone else’s sorrow. It would subsume the novel, but for the way Kingsolver layers in the abiding love of a place with vivid descriptions of nature and a way of life that, even as it’s being abandoned, will not give in. She drives home the roles of the coal mining industry and the ensuing opioid crisis in the region’s collapse, using facts throughout the novel that highlight the wanton avarice of men in power.
For all the darkness, what stays bright from beginning to end is Kingsolver’s prose, the ease with which she slips into the rhythms and patois of the region, how she mesmerizes with the urgency of Demon’s voice and spirit. A boy who cannot be beaten down, who will not be easily forgotten. Demon Copperhead is not easy reading, but is worth every minute spent focused on the page.
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