In Demon Copperhead, Kingsolver courageously tackles two crises in the United States: a deficient foster child care system, and Opioid addiction. The novel is set in the southern Appalachian mountains of Virginia, where struggling members of rural communities have been hit hard by the drug epidemic and other problems like unemployment, while being disrespected and stereotyped as Hillbillies.
Main character Demon enters the foster care system after being taken from his young drug addicted mother and abusive stepfather. The heartbreak of the situation is captured in his Aunt's reaction:
Aunt June stretched her legs out under the table and leaned back in the chair and stayed that way for so long I thought she must have fallen asleep, but she hadn't. After a while I could hear her letting her breath out, long and quiet like an air mattress with a slow leak. It was unbelievable, how much she had to let out. It went on forever. p 26
Demon goes to live on a farm with several other boys, used as slaves by the farmer, who makes them do hard labor before and after school, while he gets paid by the state for being a foster parent.
Things improve for Demon when he turns out to be a good football player, but after an injury, his coach and a corrupt doctor encourage him to take painkillers so he won't miss a game; he becomes an addict.
Kingsolver blames American society for the addiction problems facing so many young people:
It's not natural for boys to lose their minds...It happens because they've had too many things taken away from them....No decent schooling...No chance to get good at anything that uses our talents. No future. They took all that away and supplied us with the tools for cooking our brains, hoping we'd kill each other before we figured out the real assholes are a thousand miles from here. (Aunt June, p. 499)
She hints at who these "assholes" might be:
These megabuck settlements against Purdue, and not a dime of it ever getting back here. (p. 529)
Kingsolver also explores the history of contempt for Hillbillies in the United States:
All down the years, words have been flowing like pieces of shit...Rednecks, moonshiners, ridge runners, hicks. Deplorables.* (Demon, pp 69)
while pointing to its link to racism:
Certain pitiful souls around here see whiteness as their last asset that hasn’t been totaled or repossessed. (p 424)
*During the 2020 Presidential race, Hillary Clinton referred to Trump voters as deplorables. In response, Trump played up to the anger people felt at this label, encouraging racism.
kb: It's been awhile since we read Demon Copperhead.
Y: I still think back on Kingsolver's novel from time to time; although it wasn't perfect, she managed to bring her characters to life in a meaningful way. My favorite parts of the book were the look at the foster care system and her descriptions of family life in Appalachia.
J: Demon Copperhead left its mark on me too, and I still think about Demon and his contemporaries against whom all the cards are stacked so unfairly. So good job to Kingsolver for bringing this reality to life, even though I also agree it wasn't perfect. It lacks nuance and tends to labour the point, which is a risk when writing social commentary and critique as Kingsolver is doing here.
kb: I suspect her hard hitting social commentary is what won her the 2023 Women's Prize for Fiction, and the Pulitzer, rather than the book's literary merit alone. I read in several book reviews that Demon Copperhead was inspired by Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield.
Y: I would say it was more than inspired. The characters and storyline were parallel to David Copperfield, which was a constraint at times, and inevitably invited the comparison to the brilliance of Dickens’ work.
kb: I haven’t read David Copperfield. Often I find Dickens too stereotyped, and sometimes drawn out. In a similar way, I found parts of Demon Copperhead too long, and the ending a bit cheesy.
Y: I agree with you there, at times it was relentlessly sentimental and optimistic à la David Copperfield which I had a hard time buying.
kb: Still, Demon Copperhead is worth reading. It flows along smoothly, and though at times depressing, is always enlightening and relevant.
Y: I'd like to add, David Copperfield is worth reading too!!
Interview with the author, Barbara Kingsolver
Learn: The character Demon Copperhead is a Melungeon. Melungeon is a derogatory term for Appalachian people with mixed Black, European and Native American heritage. Learn more here.