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Read It and Weep: Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Will it be nominated for a Pulitzer?

Books that hit you hard

Voracious readers know that some books entertain. Others educate, inform, and teach. Some books serve as armchair travel, taking you into other parts of the world, other eras, other cultures. There are history books, crime novels, romances, memoirs, mysteries — and so many more.

But not many books emboss emotion onto the fiber of your being, imprinting your soul.

Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Demon Copperhead, does just that. It hit me hard, and in the days after absorbing the story, I’ve come back to its painful themes over and over, playing the plot repeatedly in my brain, a murderous earworm that just won’t go away.

Painful themes

I was lucky. I was born in the late 1950s to a middle-class family who believed in education, parents who both had solid jobs and never missed a day of work, and a family who — with all its quirks — took care of each other. We were never wealthy, but we had more than we needed. Yes, it sounds cheesy, but we never doubted that we were loved. (My memoir of growing up in an ordinary family with a loving father is called The Magic of Ordinary and is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple, Google, and anywhere online books are sold.)

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Demon Copperhead, is the exact opposite of my experience. Damon Fields is born in Appalachia to a teenage, unmarried mother who battles drug and alcohol dependency. His childhood is anything but happy. It’s a struggle for survival, and when his mother dies from an overdose, Damon is put into child services, beginning a long series of horrible homes and downright cruelty.

Kingsolver’s portrayal of teenage culture told through the voice of “Demon” is haunting and horrifying. (My old-school upbringing makes it hard to reconcile openly sexual relationships at very young ages, constant alcohol consumption, and drug use as a matter of course.)

Not only do the themes of drug use, addiction, and the tragedy of foster care control the narrative, but the excruciatingly painful depiction of the opioid crisis dominates the action.

Heart-wrenching to be sure.

Beautiful writing from the pen - and heart - of Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a well-known American author who is revered for her close connection to nature and her ground-breaking works over the years, including The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Flight Behavior.

I have only read one other Barbara Kingsolver, an author I came to recently, and I loved Prodigal Summer for the sensuousness of the writing, but it was a small flicker of beauty compared to the epic, moving, social statement of Demon Copperhead.

Ann Patchett, another well-known American author, spoke about the importance of the kind of novel that Kingsolver created with Demon Copperhead.

“She means to save us by telling us stories. She comes closer than anyone else I know. She’s able to tell us things we desperately need to know in a way that makes it possible for us to hear it.”

Amen, Ann Patchett.

I felt like I had been walking with Demon. Every page resonates with authentic dialogue that feels up close and personal.

"Demon" is a nickname given to him by other kids who twisted his given name, Damon. The "Copperhead" comes his head of red hair. Interestingly, Barbara Kingsolver, who grew up in Kentucky and now lives in southern Appalachia, touches on the Demon's ancestry and the Melungeon people. Melungeon is a group of people descended from blacks, white Europeans, and native Americans who intermingled and lived in isolated Appalachian settlements. The people may have dark skin, red hair, and blue or green eyes.

Demon Copperhead and David Copperfield

All of the critics mention that Kingsolver has done a modern retelling of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Sadly, David Copperfield is not one of the classics I have read, but the parallels are obvious. Both feature a young man subjected to poverty and abuse of the prevailing social systems. Their initials are the same.

Most interesting is Kingsolver's story of how she got a handle on the point-of-view for telling a story of such abject misery. She told the New York Times that while she was in England, she stayed where Charles Dickens had stayed while he was writing Bleak House. Immersed in ideas, Kingsolver had a "conversation" with Dickens who told her to write it from a child's point of view because "no one doubts the child."

Pulitzer-prize winning?

Every year, Pulitzer prizes are awarded for

“distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

Demon Copperhead is most certainly a distinguished work of fiction that depicts American life. If it isn't nominated for the Pulitzer prize, I will be flabbergasted. If it doesn't win, I'll be surprised.

Read this novel if you don't require all "sunshine and light" in your literary diet. Don't miss the lasting impact of this important work.


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