A classic based on a classic
I feel like I need some kind of reward for having finished, just as the author deserves an award for having written! I enthusiastically and optimistically started Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, two days after Christmas, thinking it would be my first read of 2023, but my count is now up to 11 books, and I just finished it. I took two breaks, one motivated by wanting to be able to read on my Kindle in the dark of night in my bed (I bought the hardcover of Demon Copperhead, knowing that I’d want to keep it on my shelf), and the other by realizing that the depressing nature of the story was having such a profound effect on my mood that I needed to read something else for a while! But I was determined to finish, and the wink-out of my Kindle battery mid-sentence day before yesterday sent me, finally, back to the last 13 percent of this tangible book.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read it—it’s an amazing story of a quirky, irrepressible, sad, endearing red-headed boy who nobody wants, and it’s also both a literary masterpiece and a stern indictment of America’s marginalization of the disadvantaged. For all those reasons, it is worth my time and yours. But lordy, is it depressing! Damon Fields (the protagonist’s real name) is a logical (though still incredibly unlucky) product of his surroundings, growing up in the foster care system after his junkie mother leaves him an orphan in a single-wide at a young age. But he is not an anomaly—there are plenty of unfortunates in the culture of Southern Appalachia who contribute to the dour mood. One of the most powerful understandings comes towards the end of the book, when Tommy, one of Demon’s former foster brothers, crafts a philosophy of America that pits the “land” people against the “money” people, and the land people—those who hunt and fish, farm tobacco, and share what they have with their family and anyone else in need, operating outside the monetary system—always lose.
I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have never read David Copperfield, the book on which Kingsolver based this one, although I have a fairly good knowledge of its contents and am in awe of how she translated Dickens’s “impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society” (Kingsolver, Acknowledgments) into this stunning story of the opioid crisis in Appalachia. But unlike the Jodi Picoult novel about which I blogged last, this book is not preaching about the social crisis but instead is determined to tell the story via the victims and survivors of it in a straightforward, completely realistic manner that guts the reader who is invested in them. Every person in this book (and there are dozens) is vivid, individual, and completely memorable. Even though I broke it up into multiple reading sessions over the course of more than a month, I never once had to think, Um, who is this character again? and backtrack, because every single one of them stood out as a person. I can’t think of a much better compliment you could give to a writer, and Kingsolver deserves it.
But it is the character of Demon who dominates—and sometimes overwhelms. His circumstances are beyond tragic, horrifying when you think of a child having to endure what he does, and yet he is a source of continual hope. It’s not that he’s a falsely optimistic Pollyanna of a character, it’s that he has somehow assimilated a work/life ethic that causes him to put his head down and push through every challenge in his desire to live. And even when he fails—and he does that just as spectacularly—he somehow never gives up on himself. As he loses family, friends, mentors, homes, abilities, he manages to continue focusing on what he does have and what he can use, and keeps hauling himself back to his feet.
One reviewer on Goodreads repeated a quote from a Washington Post book review that said,
“Demon is a voice for the ages—akin to Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield—only even more resilient.”
I couldn’t agree more. Another said “This is a book about love and the need for love, the search for love,” and that, too, is true. And the language, both brutal and brilliant—Kingsolver’s way with words is beyond skillful. I won’t say much more about the book, I’ll leave it to you to discover. But it deserves all the accolades.
Barbara Kingsolver sure can write people into existence. I don’t believe I’d have the resolve to persevere in reading such a heart wrenching story.
It was definitely tough at points.
It was definitely a challenge, but the character was so engaging that I wanted to know what happened to him! It ends on a hopeful note, at least…