Demon Copperhead: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

Summary: A troubled childhood recounted. (A retelling of David Copperfield)

One of my habits (sometimes bad and sometimes good) is to avoid reading about fiction books before I read them. Once I know an author, I would rather experience a book without any background. There are times when this is a great strategy. And there are times when I somewhat regret the strategy. In this case, I was utterly unaware that Demon Copperhead was a loose retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Because I have not read David Copperfield, I don’t know what would have been different had I known, but I did not know. I later read the Wikipedia summary of David Copperfield and can see the many parallels, and I think that made sense of a few threads of the story that I was confused about.

I have read most of Barbara Kingsolvers’ books at least once. I enjoy her writing and appreciate its incisive social commentary. And because of my history with her work, it was unsurprising that Demon Copperfield was set in southwestern Virginia. Several of her books are set in rural Appalachia, and many of them grapple with the social realities of that area.

I read several reviews afterward, and one reviewer said the social commentary at the end of many chapters was a feature of Dickens’ writing, not just Kingsolvers’. Many chapters in Demon Copperhead tell an aspect of the main character’s life (his real name is Damon, but everyone calls him Demon from a very young age), but will conclude the chapter with a reflection on one social reality or another. For instance, there is a discussion about the underfunding of Child Services and how even those who want to do good by working there are often so underfunded and overworked that their efforts are largely futile. The adult Demon who is narrating, reflects on how that underfunding reflects on the values of our society.

I listened to this on audiobook from the library but carefully copied out the following quote because the social commentary is clear-eyed, even if a bit cynical. Demon is talking about the ways that we believe a false narrative about people’s ability to work their way out of bad situations. So he refers to himself in the third person about why things did not go better for him.

“This kid, if he wanted a shot at the finer things, should have got himself delivered to some rich, or smart, or Christian, non-using kind of mother.”

The reality is that Demon was born to a teenage single mother who had grown up (and been abused in) foster care. His father died in an accident a few months before he was born that his mother would never talk about. Demon’s mom tried to be a good mom, but was poor and did not grow up with the skills to raise a child well. She was a high school dropout in a poor rural community with few options. (Some spoilers are below, but I will try to limit them as much as I can.)

She eventually gets married to an abusive man, who abused both her and Demon. She ODs (and lives), but that leads to Damon being removed from the home. This starts Demon’s interactions with social services and his own abusive situations within the system. Both he and his mom hope that they can be reunited, but his abusive stepfather is a complicating factor, as is his mom’s pregnancy and the “good face” that his stepfather presents to the world. Demon is labeled as a hard-to-control child. His mother is labeled as an addict who can’t be trusted. And his stepfather is the responsible one, and the system finds it easier to believe and trust him than either Demon or his mother.

From here, tragedy builds on tragedy with occasional bright spots, usually ending with more tragedy. The book is well-written but hard to read. I have some experience with child protective services. We had foster kids for nine months in a relatively good situation. However, we were legally required to report staff lying to the court, resulting in a string of new social service staff. So many things went wrong and did not need to have been so hard. My very brief interactions made all of the tragedies of child services in this book seem entirely possible.

There were bright spots that I also know are possible. A good teacher, a kind neighbor, a close community are where much good comes from. But those close rural communities also have limitations and addiction, disability from unsafe working conditions (like mines, logging, or factory work), and outside bureaucratic systems that are unresponsive to reasonable human needs often are inadequate.

Later in the book, there is a discussion of the differences between urban and rural poverty. Demon suggests he would prefer to be one of the rural poor instead of one of the urban poor because he can grow food, has an extended family, and has informal systems of care that the urban poor may not have access to. There is some truth to that, but the reality is that poverty is dehumanizing and brutal regardless of where you are poor.

Demon Copperhead is one of the better fiction books I have read in a while, but it is not for everyone. I listened to it on audiobook, but was careful not to have it playing when my kids were around because of the language, drug use, violence, and sex. This is very much a book about childhood written for adults, not children. As brutal as it can be, it is well worth reading, and I want to get a print version and reread it again in the future.

Demon Copperhead: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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