Barbara Kingsolver, a master of storytelling as well as research, was awarded a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for fiction early this year for her latest novel, Demon Copperhead. Similar to her portrayals of the lives of missionaries in Africa in The Poisonwood Bible and flora and fauna and park rangers in Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver really delves into her subject and offers so many eye-opening and thought-provoking insights. Demon Copperhead deals with topics such as the mess of the American foster-care system and how corporate greed caused the opioid crisis in Appalachia. But the heart of the book is a boy who perseveres through a troubled and traumatizing life, while making deep and often giggle-worthy observations of his small world.
The novel starts with “First, I got myself born,” and goes on to tell the tale of Demon Copperhead, a red-headed lad born in Virginia to a single mom with addiction issues. His red hair is the only thing he got from his father, who died before he was born. Kingsolver, known for her politically and culturally conscious novels, has lived in Appalachia for years, and as she did with the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, she delves into the intricacies of growing up in that area.
The novel, set in the 90s, leaves the reader with many things, not the least of which is an aching wish for Demon to have the life he deserves, as well as an anger-inducing understanding of how pharmaceutical companies and the US government pushed opioids on poor and vulnerable populations. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which was published in 1850 and addressed the poverty of Victorian England, Kingsolver’s homage is set in Virginia and neighboring states.
Those who love Dickens will recognize characters similar to those Dickens’ orphans come across: the saints and the dastardly villains. Demon never quite trusts anyone, for good reason. The book is narrated by the adult Demon, which provides insight and perspective. But the vulnerable young boy is also present, making his wisecracks and heartbreaking comments. Dickens fans will notice the play on character names, such as the Peggots, who are allies for Demon in his early years and based on the character Peggotty in David Copperfield.
Kingsolver obviously has an appreciation and love of Appalachia and its people, and she allows her character to explain how the way the media portrays them sometimes isn’t fair or accurate. Through Demon’s boyish voice and storytelling style, the point is made so well (and can apply to so many other situations):
“There’s this thing that happens, let’s say at school where a bunch of guys are in the bathroom, at the urinal, laughing about some dork that made an anus of himself in gym. You’re all basically nice guys, right? You know right from wrong, and would not in a million years be brutal to the poor guy’s face. And then it happens: the dork was in the shitter. He comes out of the stall with this look. He heard everything. And you realize you’re not really that nice of a guy. This is what I would say if I could, to all smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes: We are right here in the stall. We can actually hear you.”
Demon is an outstanding protagonist: funny, wise, soulful, and spirited, and his journey takes him through many trials as he tries to survive being basically on his own starting at a very young age. He encounters so many people and situations that make him who he is, and you’ll want to go along for the ride. The reader will root for this boy, laugh, and learn so much about how kids like him live and how that area of the country survives. It’s a masterpiece for our time, just as much as Dickens’ tale was in his.