Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It seemed to happen a great deal in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A book would capture the attention of readers, especially women readers, and the question people asked was ‘have you read it yet?’ That doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but here is a book that I find all my reader-friends have read or are planning to read. I overheard two women talking, last week. ‘I’m reading that book.,’ said one. Her friend replied, ‘Oh yes, that Demon book. I wanted to read it in my book group, but they said it was too long. Their loss. How far have you got?’ ‘Only about halfway. Don’t tell me what happens. It’s so good though. I’m enjoying it so much.’

I am puzzled by a book group that resist reading a prizewinning novel, and one that so many people are talking about, ‘because it’s too long.’ As she said, ‘their loss’. I look back through other recent novels, and I think that another winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction caused a similar sensation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It too was long (453 pages).

It’s taken me a little time to read Demon Copperhead. And to put my reactions into a post for the blog. It is a long book. But I wonder what there is new or different for me to say. As usual I’ll say what I think. You can add your thoughts or differ with mine in the comments.

Demon Copperhead

First, it is very Dickensian. Of course it is, Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges her debt to the Victorian writer.

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend. (547)

So it is Dickensian, first by being an adaptation of the story of a disadvantaged boy, and a brilliant one, to her context. More than that, she matches his ability to tell stories, conjure characters, keep a plot alive. And by matching Dickens’s outrage at society’s failure to care for children who slip through the cracks, who are not well treated by social services, and who are preyed upon by opportunists and others who should know and do better. The social injustice permeates this story. Dickens showed novelists how to do this.

Second, despite adapting David Copperfield for her novel, Demon Copperhead stands in its own right. You do not need to have read Dickens’ novel to follow the plot. And if you have read it, you do not need to spend too much time identifying the parallels between the two. One or two are a bit clunky: the upside-down boat for example. But mostly the original story is so strong that Barbara Kingsolver’s adaptation lightly makes the connections. I found Coach to be the least convincing character in Demon Copperfield, and I can’t think from which original character he would have been adapted.

Having said that, I found that for the most part she created authentic characters, many with great quirkinesses. Mr Dick is a joy. U-Haul is suitably creepy and oily as Uriah Heep. The Peggot family are as warm and embracing as you could wish. The belief by Mr McCobb that something will turn up is as misguided as in the original. And so on. The main joys of this novel are the characters, their influence on Demon and the interlacing of their stories with his. 

Third, it’s a story worth telling. It is told by a boy who wants to make the best of himself, but life keeps knocking him down: born into poverty, in a rural setting where the mining industry has collapsed, Appalachian Mountains, to a single mother who cannot cope without alcohol; he is looked after by the state’s social services which means his labour is swapped for accommodation and payment, on a deadbeat farm, and then with a struggling family. He learns much from this degrading treatment, but it is only when he takes his destiny in his own hands – running away to find the truth about his father – that things slowly begin to get better. He is knocked down many times before he finds true love and happiness.

Meanwhile we have seen the damage caused by the opioid epidemic, neglectful social services, and greedy individuals in a brutal and raw story. Here she is, at her most outspoken, describing an evening on the farm where the foster carer relied upon children’s labour.

A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we are meant to say. Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy who never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (76-77)

Blame disadvantaged and deprived children for making bad choices and then go off somewhere and leave them to it. 

Don’t be put off by the American setting – it has a great deal to say to us in the UK as our public services collapse. And don’t be put off by its length. There is a huge amount to enjoy and to think about in this novel. I’m not surprised it won so many prizes and has been so highly praised. Have you read it yet?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2022 by Faber. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 548pp


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

16 Responses to Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. Jennifer

    As you know Caroline, I have read it and loved it. One of the outstanding things for me, apart from the wonders you have mentioned, is that she tells the story through the voice of the child. Starting as the cheeky and defiant voice of a ten-year-old, through to the outraged voice of an adolescent and later the more introspective and self aware voice of a more mature young man. In Demon, Kingsolver has created a hero – a person who has faced all kinds of adversity, but has managed to survive.

    • Caroline

      You raise a really good point. His voice is brilliantly realised. At my book group we also looked ate the other heroes in her novel: Tommy, Angus, and we could have mentioned the teachers too.
      I enjoyed our conversations about this book. Thanks for the comment.
      Caroline xx

  2. Anne Gore

    My book club is reading it despite its length. I’m about a third of the way through so enjoying the “voice” of the narrator. I’ll feed back to you my bookclub’s concensus. Thank you for your review

    • Caroline

      I hope you are enjoying it. I think it is worth taking time over, especially when you are on a train that is 4 hours late to its destination! I look forward to hearing what your book group think.
      Caroline x

  3. Carole Jones

    I’m tempted to read this, asap, but as it is almost certain to feature on the lists for our Reading Group ‘book choice’ (thank you lovely Devon Libraries, especially Maria and team at Kingsbridge), I will wait. Meanwhile, I will re- read David Copperfield … just because… and further because… the leather-bound C.D. volumes that were my father’s are twinkling at me from the bookshelves.

  4. Thelma

    I was told that Demon Copperhead was in a series of four by Barbara Kingsolver but I can’t seem t be able to get any more information. Is this correct. I simply love her books, to my way of thinking Prodigal Summer was almost like reading poetry, it is so beautifully written.

    • Caroline

      Hi Thelma,
      I don’t understand the idea that Demon Copperhead is in a series of four. She has written many novels, as you probably know. They are all stand alone. I think you have been misinformed, and suggest you just dive in and enjoy Demon Copperhead.

  5. Charles Kilo

    It’s too long… significantly too long. There are huge sections that are not contributory to the overall story. And, she hits every aspect of this crisis in a way that becomes predictable and somewhat trite. I think it would have been much better at 350 pages and less trying to hit every possible angle of the opioid crisis. She’s a wonderful writer, but it was just too much after a while – to many small side stories that detract from don’t contribute to the whole, at least to me.

    • Caroline

      Clearly not everyone is a fan, and I expect that you find Dickens novels too rambling and full of side alleys as well. I wonder what you would have cut, and why. Myself, I enjoyed the journey through her created world, and didn’t feel that the story of the opioid crisis was THE story, just another aspect of rural American poverty at the time.
      She has written so many wonderful and long and varied novels, I hope you will return to her writing again in future with more pleasure.
      Thanks for this comment.

  6. Vickie Graeff

    I find it hard to stay in the head of a teenage boy so long. I already have predicted ahead of time what’s next and to who. I take breaks because I do find the story addicting. Unrealistic drug use, and some misinformation. Way over the top at times.

    • Caroline

      I can see you have mixed feelings about this long novel. Interesting that being ‘way over the top’ didn’t stop you reading addictively.

  7. I am just finishing DC tonight, feeling the regret that always comes with the end of a great book! I’m a huge Dickens fan and I’ve read all of his books (except I just couldn’t get into the Pickwick Papers). Copperfield is my favorite, although others come close and I enjoyed them all! I have seen e very movie version and so enjoyed the Daniel Radcliff version with Maggie Smith’s Aunt Betsy!

    I confess I was surprised that you didn’t identify Coach as Mr. Wingfield, Agnes’s father? They both fell prey to alcoholism and got into financial difficulties with more than a little help from Uriah/U-haul. I’ve so enjoyed recognizing the parallels to the original novel, but I’m stumped at finding a counterpart to Maggot … Time to reread Mr. Dickens’ masterpiece, I daresay!

    • Caroline

      Good to read the comments of a Dickens fan, and one who approves of what Barbara Kingsolver did with David Copperfield. A tour de force, I think – o make it relate to the original, but also to stand on its own merits.
      Thanks for your comment.

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