“Anyone will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.”
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.
Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.
***Thanks to NetGalley and Faber and Faber Ltd. for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.
As a retelling of a classic, Demon Copperhead reads like a classic, which is always rough for me. I don’t know if it’s just a mental block now, but it took at least three times longer than it should have to read this book – especially considering how much I was enjoying it. This writing is dense but in the best way.
A kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing. If you get past that and grown, it's easiest to forget about the misery and pretend you knew all along what you were doing.
Demon’s narrative is so brutally honest it hurts to read at times. His life is incredibly difficult, but he has such a strong sense of self that he just shoulders it. Whatever is going on, he’s been through worse, or it could have been worse – even if you, as the reader, think it couldn’t possibly. But Demon shrugs, says he should’ve appreciated something more, and moves on to the next soul-shattering event. My heart broke over and over for this young boy taking care of his mother, going through foster homes, and trying to find his place in the world. It feels like nothing will work out for him, but nothing keeps him down for long.
Kid born to the junkie is a junkie. He'll grow up to be everything you don't want to know, the rotten teeth and dead-zone eyes, the nuisance of locking up your tools in the garage so they don't walk off, the rent-by-the-week motel squatting well back from the scenic highway. This kid, if he wanted a shot at the finer things, should have got himself delivered to some rich or smart or Christian, nonusing type of mother. Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.
Demon’s perspective on his childhood, on the poverty, grief, and addiction he has experienced, is remarkable. He’s able to appreciate the little he has and to look forward to the next win, no matter how small. His sense of loyalty is unflappable, and once he’s committed, nothing can drag him away – often to his own detriment. The people in his community and his life come from the many paths he’s been forced down, and he’s the type of person who has had to get along with everyone to survive.
I've tried in this telling, time and again, to pinpoint the moment where everything starts to fall apart. Everything, meaning me. But there's also the opposite, where some little nut cracks open inside you and a tree starts to grow. Even harder to nail. Because that thing's going to be growing a long time before you notice. Years maybe. Then one day you say, Huh, that little crack between my ears has turned into this whole damn tree of wonderful.
Even though it took way too long to read, it will live rent-free in my head for much longer. Demon is not a character you forget, and his story is not one to be ignored. And while I’ll have to add David Copperfield to my TBR now (and probably set aside a month to get through it), I can’t see how the original could be better than the retelling in this case.