All of a sudden, I was seeing Demon Copperhead (2022) by Barbara Kingsolver all over the place. I first noticed it on NPR’s Best Books List. And then my book club chose it as our next book. I’m very familiar with Barbra Kingsolver. She was one of my favorite authors for many years, and I’ve read most of her books. However, I was disappointed in one of her latest books–Unsheltered and didn’t finish it. I wasn’t sure if Kingsolver was a good author for me anymore, so I picked up Demon Copperhead with relatively low expectations.
As the blurbs will tell you, Demon Copperhead is a retelling of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. However, Demon’s story takes place in contemporary southern Appalachia. Like David Copperfield, it is written from Demon’s point of view and begins with his birth. I read David Copperfield, but it was so long ago (2011) that I barely remembered any details. I even went back and looked at my review, and it didn’t jog my memory.
I was very impressed by this novel. Demon is a unique, fully realized character with an incredibly hard life. His father is dead, his mother is an addict, and his new stepfather is abusive. When his mother dies,* he is thrown into the foster care system, which is negligent at best. Demon’s heartbreaking attempt to stay with his neighbors is one of the more memorable scenes in the book.
After a harrowing trip across the state, Demon finds his paternal grandmother, who gets him a new place to stay–with the highly esteemed high school football coach and his daughter. His life changes for the better, but Demon still feels the need to prove his worth. An unfortunate knee injury leads to opioid addiction that has been enveloping the entire community for some time. Bad things happen, and more bad things happen until Demon can start building his own life back up again.
This book works on a number of levels. It is a good retelling of David Copperfield. I’d say that Kingsolver hit most of the big plot points, but in ways that fit perfectly with her new time and setting. Kingsolver also makes scathing points about the foster care system, opioid drug companies, and the world’s perception of Appalachia. Finally, Demon became a character that I cared about, and I gladly read his story for many hundreds of pages to find out what happened to him.
*SPOILER – on his birthday! This scene was very powerful.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.