Acting as an unflinching portrait of the rural Appalachian poverty crisis, it’s difficult to look away from Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize winning Demon Copperhead from its very first line. It doesn’t wait up for its reader; rather, it throws you into the world of a young boy who manages to scrape by with not much more than his cynical wit, valuable intuition, and a knack for athleticism.
Written as a modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ 1850 bildungsroman David Copperfield, Kingsolver manages to follow Dickens’ plot structure and lively characters while inserting them in the Appalachian region of Virginia in the mid-1990s. “Dead in the heart of Lee County,” she writes from the start, “between the Ruelynn coal camp and a settlement people call the Right Poor.” This working-class, tucked-away community acts as a base camp for our protagonist, Damon Fields (early on nicknamed Demon due to his fiery hair) despite all the unforgiving, godless twists and turns he is dragged through from his youth into early adulthood.
But in a broader sense, Kingsolver’s novel dives headfirst into the impact opioids have had on rural America; she gives an unshakable narrative about what such drugs can do to those in this community, which willfully and unforgivingly tears down families one-by-one. “OxyContin, God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel,” Demon explains in the novel. “For the bent-over lady pulling double shifts at Dollar General with her shot knees and ADHD grandkids to raise by herself.” It isn’t kind; it isn’t pretty. In fact, it is the wrenching descriptions such as these that stops the breath in the reader’s chest. Written as fiction but crying out as something larger – something much more real – these are the livelihoods of the real people who live in these regions that Kingsolver seeks to amplify. Those who are given little choice from their very beginnings, such as the life of her tragically heroic protagonist.
Demon’s father died before he was born; his mother died the morning of his eleventh birthday, from an opioid overdose partially influenced by the community in which she was raised, but mostly by the cruel, abusive husband she married soon after meeting. From this point forward, the novel barrels downhill with no sign of stopping. Demon is immediately thrown into the hellish demise of the American foster care system, which introduces unforgettable characters in ways that are both good and bad.
Take, for example, the McCobbs: they appear as a relatively average middle-class American family, but hanging on only by a thread dangerously close to snapping. Taking in Demon as a desperate new means of income, they failed to use the money that was granted to them by the government for his welfare. Only through the youngest daughter, who sneaks food into his bedroom no bigger than a doghouse, does true altruism and genuine kindness shine through. Moments like these display what Kingsolver is excruciatingly talented at displaying – even through the immense and unjust suffering of her beloved protagonist, there are moments of true goodness and purity that keep the reader, as well as Demon, afloat.
Yet, there are characters like foster parent Coach Winfield and his daughter Angus, or Demon’s nagging yet familial childhood neighbors the Peggots, who continually serve as a lifeline for him. Through all Demon’s trial and error – intrinsically artistic high school football starter undergoing unfathomable loss and inevitable addiction – Kingsolver proves time and time again the cruel unfairness of the cards the child was dealt, yet proves how in the end it is always human devotion and generosity that redeems him.