During my race to complete my Goodreads book challenge for 2022, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s (Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees) most recently published book, Demon Copperhead. The book is a clever retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield, set in the Appalachian Mountains during the opioid epidemic of the late 1990s. It really does feel like a Dickens novel for our time, though in some respects much heavier, both because of its content and the reality that the issues addressed in Demon Copperhead not only remain, but have grown considerably worse since the ’90s.
Kingsolver’s novel mirrors the original story of David Copperfield down to the minute details. As with David in Dickens’ novel, Demon is orphaned at a young age, experiences neglect, child labor and substance abuse and eventually finds success and family. But whereas David becomes a gentleman in English society, Demon has to perpetually battle the cycles of addiction and poverty that afflict his family and community. In this way, Kingsolver maintains the essential plot structure of Dickens’ original novel, as well as his cast of colorful characters, while also creating a story that is entirely different from the original source material. Characters like the sniveling, mawkish Uriah Heep and the scarfaced Rosa Dartle are reinvented in startlingly new ways while remaining reminiscent to their original characters. Angus, in particular, possesses the same good-natured, mature character of her predecessor Agnes, while also casting off the Victorian angelicness in favor of a tough, no-nonsense type of personality.
Similarly to Dickens, Kingsolver depicts the condition of the poor, though, in her case, in the often-overlooked parts of the United States. Whereas in Dickens’ time the oppressors were factories and corrupt orphanages, for Kingsolver the enemy is a little closer to home: East Coast pharmaceutical companies. These medical establishments — Purdue Pharmaceuticals in particular — targeted impoverished regions like Appalachia with opioid prescription drugs, creating a generational spiral of addiction and overdoses. This aspect of Kingsolver’s novel was chilling and especially well done.
Despite my appreciation for the novel overall, I do think it has few problems. As expected from the author who came just shy of winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver’s writing is very good, but at times it feels like she’s deliberately trying to write the next great American novel. I also wished there was more description of Appalachia, which felt lacking especially considering that Kingsolver lives there and has a background in ecology. There’s a bit here and there at the beginning and end of the book, but I think more in-depth naturalist passages describing rural Kentucky would offset how depressed and trashed Lee County seemed.
Kingsolver seems eager to correct the perspective that Appalachia is the armpit of America, where only backwards, red-necked and doped-out hillbillies come from, but she doesn’t do a great job of this. I came away with the impression that people like Demon can only escape the cycles of generational addiction with outside help — altruistic do-gooders like Annie and Mr. Armstrong, Demon’s teachers. The parts where the Appalachian community did rally together to care for the addicted, orphaned and grieving felt slapped on at the end. I wanted more of the folk art and front porch banjo shindig intermixed with the overdoses and Walmart parking lot drug deals.
Finally, as much as I loved the last act of the book, the last three chapters or so felt truly rushed, with the ending carelessly tidied up without much consideration of Demon’s future. This was a bit disappointing after a series of amazing chapters in the last third of the book that I was consistently impressed by. I got the feeling that Kingsolver was running low on word count (the book is already a hefty 546 pages of dense writing). That being said, I think that the novel succeeds where it matters most by retelling David Copperfield in a way that is pertinent and prescient for our time.