Kingsolver, Barbara. Demon Copperhead.  Harper, 2022

 A review by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Barbara Kingsolver is an award-winning author who lives on a farm in Washington County, Virginia. Her latest novel, Demon Copperhead, is what she calls her “great Appalachian novel.” It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.

Kingsolver grew up in Appalachia, in eastern Kentucky. After graduating from college in Indiana, she spent several years backpacking around Europe. Upon returning to the United States, she wanted to see the West, and ended up in Tucson. She says that she did not go to Arizona with the idea of settling there, but life happens. During her two decades there, she published several well-received novels. She began to feel the pull of Appalachia and, thus, several years ago, she and her family moved to a farm in Washington County.

The main character, “Demon Copperhead,” is the narrator, speaking from the vantage point of being in his mid-20s and trying to make sense of his life. “Demon Copperhead” is obviously a nickname — “Demon” coming naturally from his real name of “Damon” and “Copperhead” alluding to his reddish hair.

The novel is set in Lee County in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lee County is as far west as you can go and still be in Virginia. This is the time period in which oxycodone, in the form of OxyContin and similar opioids, became prevalent, with Purdue Pharma and other drug salesmen telling doctors that it was a miracle drug for pain and completely safe. And there was a lot of pain in Southwest Virginia. Mining coal and scratching out a living in the mountains is hard on the body.

Demon grew up in a single-parent household, his father having died before he was born. Due to the circumstances surrounding the father’s death, Demon’s mother fell apart, losing herself in alcohol and drugs. Consequently, most of Demon’s early life was spent taking care of his mother and cleaning up after her. His mother loved Demon and did what she could to protect him and keep him from being taken away from her, but she was highly dysfunctional.

Despite his situation, Demon did well in school and enjoyed the typical life of a boy in the country — rambling through the forests with his best friend, fishing, etc. That life came to an abrupt end when he was ten years old and came home to find his mother dead from an overdose of OxyContin. He was swept up into the foster care system and began his downward slide. The remainder of the book is a narrative of his struggles, and of those around him, in a world of poverty, hopelessness, oxycodone, meth, alcohol, and fentanyl.

If you have read some of the classics of English literature and have a sense that the plot of this novel seems familiar, your instincts are correct. Kingsolver purposely used Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield as the template for her book. It has been so long since I read that Dickens novel that I remember nothing about it, but I have been told and have read that the plot, characters, and even the characters’ names of Demon Copperhead are straight out of Dickens, adapted to modern times.

In an interview in The New York Times, Kingsolver declared she was a great admirer of Dickens and one of her motivations in writing her novel was the same as his: to lay bare the effect of extreme poverty on children.

Kingsolver evokes the strong points of Southwest Virginia and Appalachia in general: the beauty of the mountains and forests, the resiliency and self-reliance of its people, its tight-knit communities, and the strong sense of family.

At the same time, there is a lot of anger. There is anger at the history of outside interests, primarily the timber and coal companies, that came in, exploited the area’s resources to enrich themselves, and left devastated landscapes and people in their wakes. There is anger over a foster care system in which caseworkers have too many cases, are paid poorly, and the best ones leave as soon as they can. The constant turnover results in vulnerable kids being exploited and slipping through the cracks.

The greatest anger and bitterness are directed at Purdue Pharma and other drug companies that targeted Appalachia, along with a few other areas, due to their vulnerabilities — poverty, people in high-risk occupations, and a thinly-staffed health system — and flooded them with opioids, assuring everyone that they were safe. In doing so, they ripped apart communities and families and a way of life. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is a generation of kids “being raised by someone other than their parents because their parents are addicted or incarcerated or dead.” Kingsolver’s plea is, “We need to know how this epidemic has left a generation of innocents that nobody’s taking decent care of.”

There is another anger that was surprising to me, and hence, revealing. This is the anger toward a national media and a national consciousness that tends not to see Appalachia and rural America in general and, when they are seen, they are almost invariably depicted as backward, hillbillies, red necks, unsophisticated, etc. (Who among us has not told or heard a “West Virginia joke”?) There is an unmistakable aura of condescension. National headlines about rural areas tend to emphasize the negative.

When asked by a friend why this is the case, Demon explains it in terms with which he is familiar. Everybody needs someone to punch when they are mad. The stepfather punches the girlfriend. The girlfriend punches the kids. The kid kicks the dog. Everybody needs someone to look down on  “We’re the dog of America.”

In her interview, Kingsolver explains how this rural anger at being overlooked and condescended to is at the root of a lot of the turmoil in today’s America:

And let’s talk about who gets seen and who gets to tell the story in the U.S. I think that’s probably what’s most critical right now is that all of our entertainment, our news media, it’s all made in cities. And I think this has left rural people feeling so unseen and their problems so trivialized or ignored that they have gotten vulnerable to a damaged extent so that they’re ready to vote for the person who comes along and says, look, I see you, and I’m going to blow up the system.

This is a really good book. The story and the characters feel authentic. The places and institutions in Virginia around which the story unfolds — Jonesville, Pennington Gap, Norton, the Devil’s Bathtub, the Lee County High School football team, the “Generals” — are real. The reader can empathize with the characters. However, it is a hard book to read. Lots of sad things happen. As one reviewer put it:

It’s a wrenching book. It’s a book that I routinely had to stop reading because I was so fused with the character and so fused with the story that when I could see something bad coming, I just couldn’t handle it before bed. I just couldn’t go through that with the main character.

It is also a long book, maybe a little bit too long. But, it is written in the style of Dickens, after all.

Often, a well-written novel will leave the reader with some lasting impressions. This book has left me with two. The first is a better, albeit necessarily limited, understanding of the effects that addiction has on people as individuals, as opposed to its effect in the abstract or in group terms.

The second is a keener awareness of how a kid mired in poverty through no fault of his own, and perhaps in foster care, to boot, and being constantly told and reminded in various ways that he is somehow lower and doesn’t belong in “good” society or company, will likely develop a low sense of self-worth and an attitude of defeatism. Even when things are going well for Demon, there is always that nagging thought, “I’m really just a poor, foster kid that is not worth anything.” And disaster is always just around the corner.

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14 responses to “Lost Kids of Southwest Virginia”

  1. Ingrid Sheriff Allen Avatar
    Ingrid Sheriff Allen

    excellent novel. the audio book was great. our book club had a very lively discussion and everyone universally liked it.

  2. dave schutz Avatar
    dave schutz

    “anger at being overlooked and condescended to is at the root of a lot of the turmoil in today’s America:

    And let’s talk about who gets seen and who gets to tell the story in the U.S. I think that’s probably what’s most critical right now is that all of our entertainment, our news media, it’s all made in cities. And I think this has left rural people feeling so unseen and their problems so trivialized or ignored that they have gotten vulnerable to a damaged extent so that they’re ready to vote for the person who comes along and says, look, I see you, and I’m going to blow up the system.”

    Jeez, a fellow could think this was about Trump backers….

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Off to Ohio to run for the Senate!

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    I read Les Misérables. Still trying to recover from that and it was long ago…and in that long, sad tale the ultimate theme was redemption! Any redemption in this? More bad mouthing of the Southwest Virginia of my mother’s family history (although to some Tazewell and Bland are not SW enough…) does not appeal. It sucks to be poor. Who knew? It sucks to be poor anywhere.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      You seek redemption? Always? Ah, a Goethe man. Sorry Steve, it just doesn’t work that way.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        The head says one thing and the heart another.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      There may be an element of redemption, but that is not the theme. The author does not badmouth SW Va. Rather, she is angry at those who do badmouth the region.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Sounds like a good book. I am going out of the country tomorrow for a week and I’ll have quite a bit of “plane time”. Given that it’s too late to order the book from Amazon and get it before my flight, I’ll look in the airport bookstore.

    Meanwhile, it’s been over 55 years since Bobby Kennedy toured Appalachia and brought national notice to the area, its people and its poverty.

    Has nothing improved since then?

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Poverty is no disgrace, but it is damned annoying. — William Pitt

    In the contemporary United States it is not annoying but it is a disgrace. — John Kenneth Galbraith

    “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.” ― Herman Melville

    1. William Chambliss Avatar
      William Chambliss

      Don;t forget this one:

      “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

      Anatole France

  7. I have ordered a copy and look forward to reading it.

    I just finished re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, and just started re-reading The Orchard Keeper, so this should fit right in with the “depressing books set in Appalachia” kick I seem to be on.

    I had a deep dive into Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister next on my list, but I think this book is going to preempt that.

    EDIT: I am aware that The Death of Sweet Mister is set in the Ozarks, but it adheres to the same general theme as the others.

  8. William Chambliss Avatar
    William Chambliss

    My wife and I have been Kingsolver fans for years, since our own days of living in Appalachis. She is reading this now.

  9. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    When a child, my parents encouraged me to “clean my plate” by reminding me that “children in China were starving”. Sometimes to mix it up, they’d throw in an Appalachia or Ozark or two.

  10. BureaucratGPT Avatar

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