Demon Copperfield

Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction 2022 / 560 pages


Demon Copperhead is Barbara Kingsolver’s retelling of Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield. This is the basis of many reviews … was this a brilliant idea on her part, or inappropriate, baffling, and unwarranted?  Since I read David Copperfield in high school, approximately 55 years, and don’t remember one word of it, I am not entering into the debate at all.  I take Demon Copperhead as a new and original literary work.

Demon Copperhead is born Damon Fields in 1988 in southern Virginia to a teenage mother addicted to gin, amphetamines, and Vicodin.  A troubling attitude earns him he name Demon and bright red hair gets him “Copperhead.”  Demon’s father died before he was born, and when his mother ODs on Demon’s 11th birthday, Demon becomes a ward of the state.

Thus begins this gritty and depressing book, as Demon is moved from untenable living situations to even worse living situations.  The book is a series of unrelenting tragedies, with occasional minor victories on Demon's part that keep you rooting for him.  There is abuse, an excessive amount of illegal and addictive drug use, and sex way too early.  People continue to disappoint hm, but some, like his boyhood friend Maggot, and he new friend Angus, stay as close as they can.

The context, the social message, is about the incessant poverty in Appalachia, and how people survive it, or don't. High school football and, at last, a decent foster home to live in, provide Demon with a respite of success.  Until his knee is badly injured and opioids take over his life and his well-being.  It is rather amazing to learn about how much effort it takes to score illegal or legal addicting drugs.  As Demon is a budding artist/writer, this book also looks at how the artist's consciousness is built.

But for all the difficulties our main character faces, sometimes with astounding weakness of spirit, sometimes with profound resolve, it is, after all, written by Barbara Kingsolver, who is an extraordinary writer. From a New York Times review:  "Kingsolver’s prose is often splendid. There is the 'dog-breath air of late summer,' the guy with 'wrongful' eyebrows,  the man who makes his way down a staircase 'like something dumped out of a bucket.' Episode by episode she persuasively conveys the mind of a teenage boy."  While Demon Copperfield drags a bit in the middle, as many long books do, I keep reading and it keeps intriguing.  I am giving it three hearts because, while it is definitely a good summer read, it is NOT a light beach read!!!

I do recommend it! My high-school friend Mary and I decided to read this book together before my upcoming visit to her cabin.  I will be intrigued to hear what she has to say!

June 2023