Demon Copperhead, born to a drug-addicted single mother in an Appalachian trailer park, is the protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, a modern re-telling of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Like his literary forebear, Demon’s life will be full of struggle and cruelty, mostly from an indifferent society and from adults who are too focused on their own problems to help out.
The beats of the story will be familiar to anyone who has read the original novel. Demon’s mother makes a terrible miscalculation in marrying a cruel man who mistreats her and her son, eventually leading Demon to be placed in the foster system. However much his social workers may want to help, they have too many cases and too few resources, and out of necessity Demon is placed with a cruel farmer living in a ramshackle house who only wants the boy for cheap labor. His next foster family only wants him for the monthly check and put him to work illegally to pay off the cost of feeding him. Even his big break, being rescued by an eccentric relative and sent to live in a nice house comes with serious drawbacks, as his football coach foster dad is too invested in his playing career to notice that the pain-killers he takes to stay on the field are bad news. A bad marriage and several tragedies ensue, before he realizes what he is supposed to be doing with his life, and who in his life has always been there for him.
Kingsolver has two main points she keeps hammering home. The first is that the country, and the world, ignores Appalachia, writing its people off as stupid hillbillies and pill-addicts without considering the systemic issues that may have lead to these problems. The second is a more straightforward condemnation of Oxycontin and the way it was pushed onto unsuspecting people as a miracle cure for their pain. So many of the characters in the novel have their lives nearly or completely derailed because of a drug they scored not on a street corner, but in a doctor’s office.
Dickens did not shy away from portraying the ills of society, but if anything Kingsolver’s world is bleaker. Dickens was too much of an entertainer at heart not to hand out plentiful happy endings for the “good” characters in his novel. Kingsolver is perhaps a bit more realistic about things, as even the better outcomes are muted by the pain that has preceded them and the hard roads ahead.
It’s a big swing for an author to write a book that will inevitably be compared to a timeless classic, and Demon Copperhead is a worthy novel. It’s an honest, gritty portrayal of a segment of society all too often ignored and dismissed. However, purely from a literary point of view, I have to admit that it paled in comparison to David Copperfield. For one thing, Copperfield was a much longer book, and Dickens used that space to deepen the relationships between his characters to the point that the reader really got to know them. Dickens also weaved his large cast together majestically, albeit using coincidences that the modern reader is likely to blanche at. Kingsolver is less able to wield the disparate storylines and characters, content to hit the beats of the original and focus on her thesis. At times it felt more like an anti-drug polemic than a work of art.
David Copperfield’s famous first line goes: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In addition to not being interested in competing with Dickens’s prose, Kingsolver also isn’t much interested in Demon’s status as a hero. He’s just one among many people the system fails to help, forced to survive or not on his wits and determination. It’s a compelling argument, but makes for a less entertaining story.