Retelling of classic reminds us misery has not changed

Review: Vivien Horler

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber)

It is years since I read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, and I have a feeling I skipped a chunk in the middle.

But I do remember the bleakness of the young David’s life, the sense of hopelessness, the poverty, the cruelty and the callousness of Dickensian England. Long gone now.

And yet. Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver has reworked the narrative, setting it in impoverished hillbilly country in the US’s Appalachia, and adding a lot of drugs, particularly opioids. We end up with an entirely credible modern-day story of the same hopelessness, poverty, cruelty and callousness.

From the start the odds are against the boy.

Red-headed Demon Copperhead – real name Damon Fields – is born to a teenage single mother who is hooked on booze and drugs. She is in fact passed out at the time of Demon’s birth, and he comes into the world alone.

The image that spears the reader is this: “A slick fish-coloured hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life.”

But as he points out, he got himself born. That was something.

Then the fact he was born in a caul. This means, according to lore, that he can never drown. This is significant, as Demon’s father drowned before he was born.

Demon and his mom – who has become clean so she can keep Demon – live in a trailer in dirt-poor country, and she, a foster-care drop-out, has a job at Walmart. The trailer belongs to their neighbours, the Peggots, and Demon has a happy early childhood running wild on the mountain with his friend, Maggot Peggot, climbing trees, damming streams.

Demon and his mom are close, and they often sit on the trailer’s porch, chatting and sharing a menthol cigarette which she figures is the more child-friendly option.

But everything changes when mom meets a biker, Stoner, and then marries him. Stoner resents the closeness between mother and son, and decides Demon needs more discipline. A lot more discipline. He also forbids Demon to visit the Peggots or to play with Maggot, whom he labels a faggot.

Life becomes insupportable. Demon is kept confined to his room, relieving his boredom by drawing cartoons of Stoner in dire situations in which he comes off worst.

There are fights between Stoner and Demon’s mom. One night Demon’s mom breaks, drinks most of a bottle of gin and takes pills. Demon is terrified she has OD’d and phones for help. Stoner beats him up.

The ambulance comes, and Demon and Stoner accompany her to hospital. Child Welfare comes too, sees Demon’s bruises and decides he can’t go home with Stoner. Nor can he go to the Peggots.

He is eventually sent to temporary foster care on a farm, where conditions are pretty dreadful, and where he meets the Steerforth character known as Fast Forward, a hugely attractive person and a star on the local high school football team.

The foster boys on the farm aren’t there because of the farmer’s charity – he relies on them to work. There are cattle and tobacco and life is tough.

While he’s on the farm the news comes that Demon’s mom has died. The Peggots, elderly with their own problems, can’t take him, and they move their daughter into Demon’s mom’s old trailer. Stoner leaves. Demon is now entirely alone, apart from Child Welfare.

And so it goes. He is fostered again, but it is a disaster. He lives on his wits.

Demon has a few breaks. He turns out to be a star football player himself, and through the intervention of his long-lost grandmother, is placed in the home of Coach, the man in charge of the high school football team.

He also becomes close to Coach’s daughter, Angus. His gift for art is recognised, and Annie, the art teacher, takes him under her wing.

But then, further disaster. During a football match he badly injures his knee, and is given opiods for the pain. He becomes addicted. He marries Dori, another addict, whose future is heading in only one direction.

And so on and so on. In some ways this novel reminds me of Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning  Shuggie Bain – a tale of no hope.

And yet. At the end, as in Shuggie Bain, there is a glimmer. In fact I’d say in the case of Demon Copperhead it is more of a gleam.

This is a saga of a novel, as was David Copperfield, and just because Dickensian England is no more, we need to remember lives in modern Western countries can be just as miserable.

So would you want to read it? Well, It is a story of a boy who perseveres against the odds. It is very, very good.



One thought on “Retelling of classic reminds us misery has not changed

  1. David Bristow

    Oh my god do I need this, when thee are so many “nice” books beckoning? More misery in a world mired in misery. I dunno, feel I have to, I have kind of fallen for Barbara after a big fail with “Poisonwood Bible”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *