Book Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

About the Book:

From the multi-million copy bestselling author of Flight Behaviour and The Poisonwood Bible comes this heart-rending instant classic.

Demon Copperhead: a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. Demon befriends us on this, his journey through the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.

Inspired by the unflinching truth-telling of David Copperfield, Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead gives voice to a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

Published by Faber

Released October 2022

My Thoughts:

The thing with Barbara Kingsolver is that you know, if you’ve read her before, that you’re going to get a very good story no matter what she’s writing about. My adoration of her began a long time ago when I was in my early 20’s and I picked up a bargain of a book for only a couple of dollars because I liked the cover and it had an Oprah’s Book Club badge on it. That book was The Poisonwood Bible, and it turned out to be the most incredible novel I had read in my life up to that point. I’ve read others now by Barbara Kingsolver and this is where I get to the abovementioned thing that I was driving towards: no matter how high my expectations are and how much I already know I’m in for a good read, she still manages to floor me. Storytelling, in her hands, is like a whole different entity altogether. No other author does that for me. She is utterly brilliant.

So, Demon Copperhead. Where do I start? I’ll start at the end with the author notes where Barbara Kingsolver pays homage to another incredible author (also a favourite of mine) and the novel of his that she has drawn on and adapted Demon Copperhead from:

‘I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.’

Demon Copperhead is a novel fuelled by rage. It simmers and boils and is incredibly political throughout. Set in the mountains of Southern Appalachia in North America, and although contemporary, this novel explores the way in which this region has been exploited, over and over, down through North American history, and the crushing effects of this on modern day society and the people who call this place home.

‘This is what I would say if I could, to all the smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes: We are right here in the stall. We can actually hear you.’

There were a lot of things within this story that I didn’t know about, truly horrifying things that made my heart ache. Children cutting tobacco and getting tobacco poisoning if they didn’t wear gloves. Everything Oxy and the horror of that ripple effect. The American foster care system. Shame. Poverty. An inadequate education system. An even more inadequate health care system. It’s a roll call of the worst of the worst, and yet, despite the gravity and the crushing reality of this story, Demon is an incredible narrator and his story has so many shining moments that were uplifting and life affirming on account of his resilience.

‘She said Purdue looked at data and everything with their computers, and hand-picked targets like Lee County that were gold mines. They actually looked up which doctors had the most pain patients on disability, and sent out their drug reps for the full offensive.’

A huge part of this novel is about drug use, not just Oxy, which was introduced into rural areas throughout Appalachia as a wonder drug, but also other drugs: meth, heroin, fentanyl – the addiction and deaths are shocking. There are some extraordinary characters within this novel, in addition to Demon, but June Peggart stands out as the superhero of the story. A nurse practioner, the shining jewel of her rural family because she not only got out, but she went to college and became a professional. She returns to her home county and wages war on the pharmaceutical reps who methodically introduced Oxy into already economically and socially repressed rural regions with the specific purpose of making money through addiction. She works tirelessly with addicted patients, is surrounded by addiction within her own family, and makes it her mission to hold someone accountable for the growing number of deaths and destroyed lives she’s seeing on a daily basis. She truly was an extraordinary character. There is a scene in the novel where she is sitting in the backseat of a car with her arms around two teenagers from her extended family, both addicted to drugs, one almost destroyed and on death’s door, and I felt that pain, so much, reaching out from the page, what it would be like to be that person, trying desperately to save people you love from a certain death. The horror of that.

“They did this to us. You understand that, right?”

I don’t want to spoil this novel for potential readers but there’s also so much I’d love to share about it. It’s a delicate balance. One of the more confronting things to happen within it, for me, was when Demon suffered a knee injury playing high school football, the exact same knee injury my own son suffered four months ago, also playing high school football. Whereas my son was immediately recommended for surgery and was operated on within the month with ongoing rehab and a firm recommendation for no playing football for six to nine months, Demon was given a prescription for Oxy and was back on the field within a fortnight, with a promise to look at the knee again in the offseason. By then though, well, you know where this is headed. He was fifteen years old. I cannot tell you how reading that affected me. And that’s just one thing out of so, so many, that broke my heart and shocked me in equal measure.

It’s coming in as a late entry, but Demon Copperhead is definitely going to be on my list of best books for 2022, quite possibly in first place.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. Excellent review 🙂
    I’ve only read Poisonwood but after all these years (decades!), it sticks in my mind (especially the scene where one of the characters learns to crawl).

    You might be interested to know that I am slowly compiling my list of “Best of 2022′ (where I amalgamate all of the published ‘Best of’ lists, and this one features.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m unsurprised it would be popping up on best of lists. I always enjoy that post of yours, with all the lists.
      I started on my own the other night, it’s currently far, far too long, but I know this one, Horse, and The Marriage Portrait are definitely on it.

      Like

  2. Agree with your review. Things wouldn’t be much better in the U.K. but we are stricter with Oxy. Have you read ‘transcendent kingdom’? Worth it as the oxy epidemic’s really brought home

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a review! I must admit at the moment I’m leaning a little away from anything dense with sociopolitically-constructed misery (there’s a mouthful) purely because I’m a bit fatigued by it. But you’ve made this irresistible! I read Poisonwood Bible many years ago and have only dabbled in Kingsolver since. Shall rectify, thank you! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I also loved this book. I enjoyed your review except you got the location wrong. The book
    is set on Appalachian Virginia, not Kentucky. You might want to change that in your review.
    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Top 15 Books of my 2022 Reading Year | Theresa Smith Writes

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