Coming-of-age during America’s opioid crisis: David Copperfield relocated to the 1990s Appalachians.

Mixed-race Demon (birth name Damon Fields) is born in a trailer to a teenage addict, inheriting nothing but his dead father’s good looks and copper-coloured hair. When his mother dies from an overdose, he is shunted from one foster home to another, neglected by an underfunded social care system, and in no time at all he falls prey to exploitation and mistreatment.

From the opening line, ‘First I got myself born,’ Demon’s voice captivates. His wit and intelligence compel the reader to sit up and pay attention.

The novel tackles prejudice head on. Of Appalachian people Demon reflects, ‘God made us the butt of the joke universe…This is what I would say if I could, to all smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes: We are right here in the stall. We can actually hear you.’ He adds that terms intended to wound can be reclaimed and used to empower those at the receiving end of bigotry.

The novel’s Bildungsroman genre lends itself to heightening awareness of social issues. As with Dickens, the aim is to exact justice, ‘a good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it’. Kingsolver is informative without preachiness. We get the background to social issues in the Appalachian region, the coal companies who failed to invest in higher education leaving local men no alternative but to go down the mines. Then, as mechanisation replaced the workforce, Big Pharma companies exploited the fallout of mass unemployment by pushing the prescription drug Oxycontin. Kingsolver says, ‘The more I dug into Lee County [Virginia], the more I saw Purdue [Pharma]’s exploits as the latest in the long train of big-money operations coming here to scoop out our resources, get rich and leave a mess behind.’

Much in Demon Copperhead maps onto the earlier classic, inevitably prompting comparisons with the original.

Where Dickens routinely put his female characters on a sugar-coated pedestal, Kingsolver’s version of Agnes is down to earth tomboy Angus. The child-wife Dora is now Dori. A scene of her with Demon in a car put me in mind of The J Geil’s Band hit ‘Centerfold’. Other female characters, notably Aunt June and Mrs Peggot, show that it is often the women who pick up the pieces during times of crisis.

Less successful are some of the male characters’ transitions. U-haul is no match for the ever-so ‘umble original villain of the piece, Uriah Heap. Mr McCobb (Mr Micawber) is merely unpleasant and one dimensional.

Can you enjoy this book with little or no knowledge of David Copperfield? Yes. In fact, you won’t be distracted by the similarities, or looking out for famous lines. Unfortunately for Kingsolver, in a contest between McCobb and Micawber, the latter wins hands down:

‘If you spend one penny less than your earn every month, you’ll be happy. But spend a penny more than your earn, and you’re done for’

McCobb in Demon Copperhead

‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’

Micawber in David Copperfield

A further parallel with the original is the ocean as an emblem of hope. Demon was born in the caul (the membrane surrounding the foetus), and he believes this means he can’t drown. Even while his life spirals into the direst of straits, Demon never lets go of Angus’s gift of a ship-in-a-bottle. The ending leaves the hero (and the reader) with a glimmer of hope afloat.


Sue Clark · 12/14/2022 at 6:54 pm

Brilliant revue Amanda. It’s a great but difficult listen at times. Would recommend especially due to the wonderful vernacular and wit. I felt so connected to the main character. Still got a few hours listening to go it’s a roller coaster ride. I’m not overly familiar with Dickens David Copperfield (apart from TV versions) so I’m finding it a good stand alone story.

    Amanda Read · 12/15/2022 at 6:14 am

    Thank you, and also for confirming it does work as a standalone.

Burton Book Club - group read for November 2022 - Burton in Wiltshire · 12/14/2022 at 8:53 pm

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