From a Google Image Search – USA Today
Rarely have I read a novel that was a take-off on a novel by a famous author from another era that is as well-done as Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead. I had to refresh my memory of the details of Dicken’s book, David Copperfield, but the parallels are strong, even down to the names of characters. Normally the newer book would be overshadowed by the original, however this is not at all the case here. Of course, Barbara Kingsolver is a storied author in her own right, and she proved her bona fides with this skillful modern tale. Demon Copperhead works well as a stand-alone novel without knowing about the historical references.
Dickens wrote to expose the inequalities in the lives of Londoners in the nineteenth century. For the most part his protagonist lived in an urban area. Barbara Kingsolver moves this discussion of inequality to a rural area in Tennessee, suffering unemployment and poverty because the coal mines have been closed. David Copperfield lost his parents; Damon Fields/Demon Copperhead (a redhead) lost his father before he was born, and his mother married an evil charmer who abused Damon. His mother eventually died of an addiction she could not overcome. I will not trace all the parallels between these two stories but if you haven’t read Dicken’s novel or need a refresher you should find a summary. I found David Copperfield streaming on Hulu. Online this is the one I found:
As if poverty and unemployment were not enough along comes oxy, oxycodone, heroin, and addiction, pill mills, a shortage of rehab programs, all factors that work to mix with the alcohol already in use for self-soothing. The mines had ruined the bodies of the miners and they were sitting ducks for pain meds. Kingsolver implies that the pharmaceutical industry was well aware of the fact that these pain meds are addictive. Did they decide that the negative side effects were actually a profit-making feature of the meds? Did they find out how addictive these pills were after widely prescribing them? Kingsolver does not find the industry, the greedy pharmacists, the crooked doctors innocent of guilt.
But this is not a scientific diatribe against the drug industry. This is a character driven story. We get attached to Damon/Demon as he wends his way through our disastrous foster care system, offered up to one flawed caretaker after another until he arrives at the farm of Mr. Creaky, another terrible caretaker, where he meets some boys who become entwined with his adult life, some in good ways, some in bad. As you read you wonder how any child could survive the system that consistently fails Damon. When Demon/Damon ends up with the coach of the Generals, and he grows into a star player on that high school football team, we think that his problems may be solved, but an injury pulls Demon into the world of oxy and many complications ensue.
The best thing about living with the coach is his daughter Agnes, who calls herself Angus, an intelligent girl who adopts a witty but androgenous persona. There is an Agnes in the Dicken’s book too. In fact, these two books mirror each other, almost character for character. Several grotesque love stories are told of real love yanked out of any chance of success by drugs, of lovers that choose the wrong person to love, of lovers abused by the object of their affections. A loving neighbor family provides some stability in Damon’s life. I can’t even tell you who makes it through and who doesn’t. It’s an excellent novel and a story that is just as gripping in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth. Will it have as little effect on change? Novels may not bring instant change, but they often resonate through the ages.