The Copperhead Demon By Barbara Kingsolver Book Review


It’s hardly Halloween. The ball won’t drop in Times Square for another full two months, and more good books will definitely appear before the end of the year. But I already know: My favorite novel of 2022 is The Copperhead Demon by Barbara Kingsolver.

Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, this is the story of an irrepressible boy that no one wants, but readers will love. Damon is the only child of an alcoholic teen – a “rehab expert” – in southwest Virginia. He became aware of his status early on, at the same time as he had obtained the title of Demon. He says, “I was a menial life,” “I was born in The motorhome, it’s like the Eagle Scout for trailer trash.” The more he understood the connotations of words like “heck” and “retarded,” the more frustrated he became.” That’s what I would say if I could, to all the smart people in the world with their stupid jokes. … We can already hear you.”

“You get to the point of not caring about people who think you’re worthless,” he says. “Essentially by getting there first on your own.”

Satan is right about America’s condescending mockery, but he’s wrong about his own worth. In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of that boy’s spirit to illuminate–and sing–the darkest recesses in our country.

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The basic American character of “Demon Copperhead” seems ironic given that Kingsolver drew its inspiration directly from one of England’s most famous classics: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. In a brief epilogue, Kingsolver expresses her gratitude to Dickens and admits that she has lived for years “with his anger, his creativity, and his sympathy.”

Indeed, anyone familiar with Dickens’ most autobiographical novel will hear its characters and incidents echo through these chapters. And in one particularly meta moment, Kingsolver winks at its readers when Demon praises an author he discovered at school. Charles Dickens, as he puts it, “is seriously old man, dead and alien, but Christ Jesus got the picture of children and orphans spitting and no one giving a donkey a mouse. You’d think it was from here.”

There’s no denying the fun of seeing Pegotes Dickens transform into cute Bigots, or his oily villain Uriah Heep recast the role of a Bucky soccer assistant coach named U Whole Biles. But many of these echoes can be made. Not only has Kingsolver re-dressed Dickens’ characters in modern attire and resettled them in southern Appalachia, the way a desperate Shakespeare director might reimagine a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” taking place at Ikea. No, Kingsolver has reworked the story into the fabric of contemporary life. “Demon Copperhead” is her utterly thrilling story, a fierce examination of contemporary poverty and drug addiction found far in the richest country on earth.

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From the moment the Devil started talking to us, his story was already a boulder rolling down the Appalachian Mountains, faster and faster, not stopping for nothing. “We are one thing after another,” he says. “Sometimes a good day lasts for about ten seconds.” Even before his birth, his father, a man named Copperhead, died under mysterious circumstances. Demon knows his mother, overwhelmed by optimism and other spirits, is unreliable, but it’s still traumatic when he loses her, too, and falls into the cogs of the foster care system.

“I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” he says. “Here’s some advice: Never think about it.” He is 10 years old.

Kingsolver reignited the moral discontent of the great Victorian writer to dramatize the horrors of child poverty in the late twentieth century. Satan’s descriptions of his life under the neglected eye of child protection services reveal one ordeal after trial. The country, which is already overburdened, relies on recruiters, “which rotate and promote boys in more than fifty client accounts.” It’s horrific, akin to modern-day slavery, where shady adoptive parents sign up for free work and monthly state checks. “Being old for your age is a trap,” Satan notes. “They send you wherever they need an adult body that can’t resist.” Adoptive care at its best is “like the intersection between imprisonment and prevarication.”

A saving grace. This would be a grim melodrama were it not for Demon’s endearing sense of humor, an alloy formed from his unaffected innocence and exhausting sarcasm. Assigned to a tobacco farm, for example, Demon meets his new foster “father,” Crickson, “a big and kind man with a red face and greasy comb like fingers who dances in basketball.” The abandoned kitchen is covered in scum. “This man’s wife is dead,” says Damon. “I wondered if her body was still lying somewhere in that house, for I’d say there’s been no arrangement here since I started.”

At such moments—and they are ubiquitous in this novel—you might be reminded of another orphaned boy slithering through the bottom brush of the country, just trying to get out of trouble: Huck Finn. With Demon, Kingsolver created an outcast that is equally reminiscent of Twain’s masterpiece, speaking in the natural poetry of American slang.

Kingsolver’s attraction to the great novels of the nineteenth century is not surprising. Since the publication of her first novel, “The Bean Trees” in 1988, she has grown interested in stories that explore pressing social themes. In 2000, she created the Bellwether Prize, a $25,000 award designed to celebrate “social narratives” that address “issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relations.”

This is a tough, deadly peril of dialectical art, and none of the award winners I’ve read have come close to Kingsolver’s blend of ingenuity and strength. Now, with “Demon Copperhead,” she’s raised the bar to a higher level, providing her best evidence yet of the novel’s ability to entertain, move, and demand reform at the same time.

Much of this success stems from how cleverly Damon’s experience is weaved through the tragedy of opioid addiction in the United States. Growing up in the early days of that miracle pill, OxyContin, and Kingsolver show how a conspiracy of capitalism and criminality exploited the pain of poor Americans to create a shockingly deadly and profitable industry.

“I don’t know a single person my age who doesn’t take pills,” Damon says at one point. “If you didn’t know the dragon we were chasing, words might not help.” But these words, expressed in the agonizingly frank voice of a barely alive young man, create a profound image of that dragon.

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“Where does the path of ruin begin?” Satan asks. “That is the point of removing all of this,” I was told. “To get the handle on some of the options I made.” But part of his struggle involves realizing how much of this road has been set up by forces completely outside his control. At one point, a cute woman told a demon that he shouldn’t think he should be responsible for everything. And she insists his job is “just to be a little kid”.

“Strange,” Satan thought. “I’ve never had this job before.”

In such delicate moments, this story seems too much.

Satan escaped. On some level, we always know that; He’s the narrator after all. But the harrowing story Kingsolver tells – including a particularly chilling climax – makes his life seem in constant danger. His resilience, in the face of many personal tragedies and government failures, makes him a name to remember.

“I’m starting to recognize the Copperhead Demon,” he says in a rare moment of pride. “You can’t deny, she has power for that.”

Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post.

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