Review: Barbara Kingsolver takes on ‘David Copperfield’

“Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper)

“Demon Copperhead,” the latest from Barbara Kingsolver, is a modern reimagining of “David Copperfield,” set in Appalachia. But you don’t need to have taken an English lit seminar to enjoy this novel. If you’re familiar with the Charles Dickens classic, you’ll follow the story’s beats and chuckle when you meet the Pegs, Tommy Waddles and UHaul Pyles instead of the Peggottys, Tommy Traddles and Uriah Heep, but the story certainly stands on its own.

The voice takes some getting used to, but from the start the title character feels like a reliable narrator, telling it very much like it was. “First, I got myself born,” begins the book, as Demon flops around on the bathroom floor of his junkie mom’s trailer, “inside the sack that babies float in,” mom unconscious nearby. Dad is dead, a story that trickles out in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, and mom is eventually in no shape to parent, so Demon is ejected into a series of foster homes, each only slightly more bearable than the last. Other institutions fail him as well, including school, where he’s deemed “gifted” only because of his artistic talent. Turns out he’s great at drawing comics, “a born sucker for the superhero rescue,” but can he rescue himself from the vicious cycle of institutional poverty?

Demon is looking back on his life as he tells his story, so that self-awareness provides Kingsolver ample opportunity to comment on the problem. As Demon recounts his mom’s funeral, he remembers first hearing the term “oxy,” then expounds: “God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel. … For every football player with some of this or that torn up, and the whole world riding on his getting back in the game. This was our deliverance. The tree was shaken and yes, we did eat of the apple.”

Big pharma comes in for lots of deserved scorn, as addictions to prescription drugs impact countless characters. Demon’s descent begins with painkillers following a football injury, then is exacerbated by a love affair with a user, who introduces him to all sorts of cheap drugs. But throughout it all, he remains a sympathetic character, at least in part because we know he’s telling his own story as a cautionary tale.

There’s more social commentary throughout, including young Demon asking about the term “hillbilly” and realizing that slurs — redneck, moonshiner, ridge runner, hick and deplorable — end up as sources of pride, even used as bumper stickers on their trucks.

What keeps you turning the pages is the knowledge that Demon has a future. The novel ends on a note of hope — not quite the tidy conclusion of “David Copperfield” with its wedding and five children — but enough to show that not every fate is decided by the circumstances of one’s birth.

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