Sunday, January 8, 2023

Demon Copperhead: Kingsolver Always Delivers


I know I promised to share highlights of my 2022 reading, but I finished Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, on New Year's Day, and I am still thinking about it.

The title (and the author's notes) invite comparison to David Copperfield, but in anything but a derivative way. Set in a poor town in what had been Virginia coal mining country in modern day, the title character is one of the most compelling narrators I've read in awhile.  I wouldn't go so far as to call Demon a naive narrator, though his  youthful perspective is part of the attraction. I'm tempted to listen to the audiobook to see how that voice translates.

I've long been a fan of Kingsolver's novels. I've read everything she's written, including her poetry, starting with The Bean Trees. Reading her novels always led me to slow down and pay attention to her writing chops. Unlike some books I read when the author's process gets in the way of the story, Kingsolver's novels make me just a bit envious of how she uses literary elements in a way that seems so effortless and natural.

The protagonist was born to a teenage mom and named Damon, which naturally was changed to the nickname Demon by the time he got to school (as his best friend was stuck with the nickname Maggot.) In a series of misfortunes, he experiences abuse and neglect by his mother and stepfather, leading to a years or rejection and loss. Demon shows the dark side of foster care abuse and pitfalls of the systems intended to protect children.

This is also a story of drug and alcohol abuse, which is often so rampant in areas of economic decline. I recently read Margo Price's memoir Maybe We'll Make It, in which she writes candidly of some of the similar patterns of addiction she fell into. 

While Demon Copperhead is a hard read, it is not without hope. A number of caring, though flawed, people offer him surrogate family, encouragement, and opportunity. Two of his teachers, a mixed-race couple with whom he maintains contact, are examples of the power of educators who not only see their students but are willing to be seen as people. And who can't love characters who name their dog Hazel Dickens?

As I made my list of books I read last year, I was struck again how some slip away right after I read them, and others stick with me. I think I'll be thinking about Demon Copperhead for a long time, and I can't wait to have the opportunity to talk about it with my reading friends.


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