“She liked to tease me that if we lived to a hundred, she would still be the one to get there first. Which was true. No credit given for all the extra miles that take you nowhere.”
Charles Dickens and his beloved David Copperfield inspired the phenomenal Barbara Kingsolver (I mean, have you read Animal Dreams or The Poisonwood Bible? Just brilliant.) to write an American bildungsroman that may be one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. Demon Copperhead (HarperCollins 2022) is devastatingly gorgeous and magically brutal in the same breath. Set in Appalachia in the 1990s, smack dab in the heart of the opioid crisis, this novel leaves blood and grit in your teeth but hugs your heart something fierce.
Demon Copperhead was born to a teenage addict, and the novel opens with his birth. As he is looking back on his childhood with his mother, there’s such an openness and forgiveness in his words and memories. There are some things he won’t forgive her for, but the love he had for his mama, the mark she left on his life if nowhere else, leaves a mark on the reader. And that’s Demon. That’s how he sees those around them – with a light.
It’s a heartbreaking read about a very hard subject, but Kingsolver treats her characters, through Demon, with a respect that we haven’t seen in some other works centering on Appalachia. This isn’t Deliverance or Hillbilly Elegy – this is a love letter to a place and a people who had a tough fucking row to hoe. It’s also not trauma porn, despite a lot of trauma. (The difference between Demon Copperhead and Betty is that Demon Copperhead is character driven and Betty is trauma driven.)
Demon is such a Dickensian character and is beautifully and completely rendered. His voice is consistent throughout the novel, never losing its shine, and it will ring in your ears as if he were right next to you. Charles Dickens had a favorite, and it was David Copperfield. I have a favorite, and it is Demon Copperhead.
Read this book.