Spoiler alert: “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver is not about a snake. It is a story about a boy. The book begins with a quote from Charles Dickens’ novel, “David Copperfield”: “It’s vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”
Like David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is a child born into a life of poverty. From an early age, he is exposed to drugs, the foster system, the emerging opioid epidemic, and the often overlooked and smeared world of Appalachia — specifically Lee County, Virginia. Demon is a child forced into adulthood who is used and wounded by those tasked to care for him.
However, it is overly simplistic to say this book is depressing. Yes, Demon’s story is tragic, but I don’t think he would necessarily agree with that statement. Throughout the story, he also finds joy in the everyday and has people who believe in, support and love him.
I think Demon would say that he was just a kid growing up in a tough time, in a tough place, without much. This isn’t unlike David Copperfield, who similarly grew up during a tough time, in a tough place, without much.
Kingsolver, inspired by Dickens’ bildungsroman, “David Copperfield,” takes Demon Copperhead’s adventures along the same path. Two parallel lives, 174 years apart. “David Copperfield” was a timely social commentary about the inequity of class, women’s opportunities, education and access to health care.
Similarly, Demon is a voice for Appalachia. He is not a caricature of a hillbilly or a monolithic representation of what it is to be a kid from Lee County in the late 1990s. He’s a complex growing being. He has a pure heart and is doing his best to survive, although he doesn’t have the tools to understand or imagine what it means to thrive.
Meeting him as a boy and growing with him into manhood, we build an empathetic understanding of how opportunities (or lack thereof) affect the outcomes of a generation just as they did 174 years ago. Along with Demon, we learn about the history of Appalachia, abuse of the coal industry, intentionality of the pharmaceutical industry to infiltrate Appalachian communities, and how the world has come to view the region. Throughout the story, our eyes open with Demon’s.
It isn’t often that a book fully changes my worldview, but isn’t that the hope? Reading provides both mirrors and windows — opportunities to reflect and contemplate or to discover something new. As a Southern woman who came of age during the same years as Demon, I feel this novel provides a little of both. It is a powerful thing for a story to correct what I thought I knew.
You may find aspects of this novel challenging, but I imagine you’ll agree that in the end it was a story worth telling and a novel worth reading. Demon’s past will certainly influence your present.