Thursday 25 January 2024

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

    Barbara Kingsolver has taken the rough storyline of Dicken’s David Copperfield, updated it to current times,  and set it in a poverty stricken county in the rural Appalachian Mountains.  I found it immensely enjoyable to see how Kingsolver created similar characters and situations from David Copperfield, to tell an updated story of modern day America, painting for the reader, an often shocking picture of the devastation caused in rural Appalachia by its poverty, the historic exploitation of Big Coal, and by modern Big Pharma, getting rich on its addictive opioid drugs.

Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead because of his red hair, like David Copperfield, is born to a widowed woman, but Demon’s mother struggles with drug addition, and much of young Copperhead’s early life is spent caring for his mother and trying to keep things from falling apart.  As in Copperfield, his mother marries a stern, cruel, good for nothing man, who ends up becoming Demon’s guardian after the mother overdoses and dies.

    Demon finds some solace in the kindly Peggot family (similar to the Peggerty family in Dicken’s novel), but like young Copperfield, Demon then ends up living in a series of foster homes, who only want him for his labor, and in this case; the government welfare money that comes with him.  His childhood is cruel and horrific, but he rolls with the punches, and deals with his situation the best he can.

From his status at the very bottom of Appalachian society, in high school Demon’s status soars when he becomes the foster child of the famous local high school football coach, idolized by the whole county for his undefeated football teams.  The coach’s daughter, Angus, becomes the stable companion and friend Demon needs.  The coach’s assistant, nicknamed “U-haul” is the echo of Uriah Heep, the memorable slimy, sycophant, and one of the most memorable of Dicken’s characters in David Copperfield.  

Demon briefly becomes a star of the football team, until in a game he receives a terrible football-ending knee injury, and the Team Doctor, puts him on heavy medication with Oxycontin, the popular opioid painkiller that is starting to addict and decimate the county.  

An addiction to “Oxy” and other opioids, slowly develops as the team doctor continually prescribes the drugs, which Demon depends on to kill the horrible pain in his knee.   Although addicted  Oxy, Demon tries to keep things going, then, like in Copperfield, he falls deeply in love with a childlike young woman named Dora. Dora, who is also an addict, becomes increasingly addicted to opioids, despite Demon’s struggles, to get her and himself to off of the drugs.  Dora, like her namesake in David Copperfield, dies, causing Demon’s struggles to intensify.  

Readers of other Kingsolver novels, may be shocked by the language and situations in Copperhead, because its narrative is written in the language of an orphaned teenager, who has lived a brutal and unsheltered life.  If you haven’t figured it out by now, Kingsolver takes the reader into some really ugly and dark places in rural Appalachian society, so reader beware.  Unlike, David Copperfield, this novel is not for kids, and it deals with some of the terrible contemporary conditions experienced by many people living in rural poverty.

Despite the sometimes very grim sections of the novel, in the end, Demon’s struggles are life affirming.  Written in the first person, through the eyes of Demon Copperhead, the prose is smart, very witty, and insightful.  Since David Copperfield has always been my favorite Dickens’ novel, I really enjoyed the clever way Kingsolver has used it and updated its situations and characters, to fit the world as it now is.

    It was fun to compare the Copperhead with Copperfield.  I have read it twice.  It has become one of my all time favorite novels.

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