By Howard Waters
Barbara Kingsolver is one of our generation’s finest writers and with this book, she seems to have reached her peak. This novel was written using America’s Appalachia as a backdrop. This is where Kingsolver has lived much of her life (including her current home in Washington County, Virginia). Her father was a physician, so her upbringing was a much more nurturing one than most of her schoolmates and, especially, many of the characters in Demon Copperhead. Kingsolver’s favorite childhood activity was performing as the family storyteller. Her parents were “anti-television,” so telling stories was a way to provide entertainment to her brothers and parents. This activity is what led her to become an author.
Demon Copperhead is generally based on Charles Dickens’s classic novel, David Copperfield. Both books have a protagonist who is born to abject poverty and follow his struggle to move up in a world with few resources for class mobility. Recreating this 19th-century British masterpiece as a 21st-century tale was an enormously ambitious task — but as it happens, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read a word of Dickens. What does matter is that the plot of Demon Copperhead races along at an amazing pace, considering the rather heavy weight of the story. Kingsolver has the ability to write lyrical, first person, almost poetic prose, which helps keep the style very conversational. That’s quite an accomplishment because she periodically uses Appalachian terminology. But never fear — those phrases won’t puzzle you because the accompanying context makes it easily understood.
The hero, Damon (Demon is often used because that’s how people teased him) is born to even less than a single-parent family. His father died before his birth and his mother was always into some sort of sinful activity that would have emotionally stunted the growth of any other child for life. Notably, Kingsolver frequently weaves social issues into her works to explore the disturbing aspects of broken families, orphans, modern-day addictions and especially, the devastating results of the opiate crisis. Demon Copperhead lends itself well to that ongoing effort.
Working his way up was out of the question during Damon’s early years since just having enough to eat and remain healthy occupied almost all of his waking hours. Even avoiding broken bones, bruises and knife wounds or gunshots was a challenge due to the frequent visitation and residency of drunk boyfriends into the family single-wide trailer. Early in the book, you’ll see how Damon is somehow able to make friends that helped him survive these conditions and vice versa. These characters are wonderfully developed. Many of them you will cheer for and some of them you will profoundly dislike. Damon’s various relationships with them are really what will keep you invested throughout the book.
This was the third Kingsolver novel I’ve enjoyed behind The Lacuna (good, but not as readable), and Flight Behavior (great), which is also set in Appalachia but a lot more science-oriented than her other efforts. Demon Copperhead is in a class of its own. In fact, it was recently presented with a Pulitzer Prize! Other accolades include a selection into Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the New York Times bestseller list, a Washington Post Top Release and as a finalist for the 2023 Women’s Prize. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it is one that you’ll anxiously pick back up every day.
Howard Waters was a principal and partner of Waters & Bridgman Marketing. Now retired, he reads, cooks, plays tennis and procrastinates about writing short stories.