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Book Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

“It’s a situation, being invisible. You can get to a point of needing to make the loudest possible noise just to see if you are still alive.”

Reading Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was a complicated experience for me.

Demon copperheadThis novel, a sort of modernized reimagining of David Copperfield (which I have never read because Dickens and I do not get along) tells the story of Demon, who’s born to a mom with a drug problem. They live in a single-wide trailer, helped out by their neighbor the Peggots, but it is not a happy existence. It gets worse when Demon’s mom gets involved with another man. He has few bits of brightness in his life—Maggot (his best friend and neighbor) and his family, a young, determined caseworker—but is mostly a struggling little kid. Then things get worse when Demon’s mom gets married to an abusive man named Stoner. From there his life is a series of more and more difficult struggles, interspersed with some upsides (like becoming a local football star). But the positive experiences and situations are always touched with a hint of menace; you never can believe he’ll get to keep anything good.

It was a complicated reading experience because on one hand, it is just so good. The writing brings the characters to life, and they are complex, many-sided individuals. Angus (“all I could think of was little Angus bearing those Hellboy eyes on her, all her life. Growing her skin of Leather”) and Ms. Annie will stay with me for a good, long while. I loved that Demon finds a sort of way out (if at least a mental escape) with art. I loved his experience with his grandmother, especially Mr. Dick and his book kites. I appreciated the way Demon’s father, who has died before the story begins, is nevertheless a character with influence. Appalachia came to life in my imagination, and I have had actual dreams about the Devil’s bathtub.

I’ve loved Barbara Kingsolver’s work since I read The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible is one of my top-ten favorite novels. Her writing skill is just so apparent in Demon Copperhead. I know some have complained that this one is too long, but for me the pacing was perfect. It told the story fully.

But on the other hand—this is a painful read. It explores the impact of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia, and that is an unrelenting nightmare itself. Toss in the poverty caused by the ending of the coal mines and the vacuum that created in the economy, and yes: It seems impossible for anyone to escape that community without scars. The people who hurt or damage Demon have themselves been hurt or damaged, and he turns that around both on others and himself. I often grew frustrated with Demon and his decisions, even while I understood why he made them. You make the loudest possible noise just to see if you are still alive. Community and drugs and economy and family and social systems all seemed set against him, and then all of his choices made the impact even worse.

(Maybe because I sometimes did that myself as a teenager made it even harder for me to read.)

So every time I picked the book up, I did it with a sort of greedy reluctance. What would happen to Demon and the characters I’d started loving? And it was often awful, but his voice just rang out so true that the reading itself was delicious.

I was—I don’t think I’ve ever thought this about a novel before—I was so grateful when I finished it. Because at last I was finished. When I was done, I set it down on the floor by my chair, turned off my lamp, and said, out loud to no one at 2:00 a.m. in February darkness, “Thank God that is over.”

And so this book review went unwritten for months. I don’t know how to put into words what Demon Copperhead made me feel. It’s always hard to quantify a book—what does “good” even mean, what does “bad” mean?—but this was one of the hardest to verbalize. I was horrified and sorrowful for all of Demon’s difficult experiences but I loved reading about them, which makes absolutely no sense, but there you go.

That’s likely exactly what makes a memorable book.


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