BPS Review of Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver ( Sept 2023)
Very few of us were experts about Dickens and / or David Copperfield before we got stuck into the saga of Demon. So the knowledge of a reasonably happy ending was reserved for just a few, and fair play to you ( you know who you are!) for helping us see the astonishingly close parallels between the two texts. However, it did mean therefore that we embarked on a long and often harrowing tale, not knowing how bad things were going to get for Demon, and somewhat depressed by the plight of children in peril and a society torn apart by drugs. On the other hand, wasn’t it funny?!
As Dickens famously said himself, “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait”. Which is precisely what Kingsolver did too.
Might some of us have given up, had it not been for the promise of a good moan at bookclub?! Several of us found the oxycontin-laden middle part hard to endure, but others found it an essential part of the contemporary retelling ( further reading and watching on this is below if you’re interested).
There were however many, many good bits and Demon’s character was taken to all our hearts. He was the essence of wit, resilience and stoicism in the face of his trials. All of the other characters have bucketloads of complexity and fallability, from the good ( Tommy) to the bad ( Fast Forward) and the downright ugly ( Mr Crickson aka Creaky – read his description on page 59!)
Demon has the perfect combination of innocence and wisdom in his commentary. He makes some lovely insights about the contrasts of urban and rural living, and the powerful sense of community in the small town Appalachian hinterland. Whilst the story is very true to David Copperfield, Kingsolver argues that she made her women characters stronger and more likeable, as Dickens was accused of portraying women less than sympathetically. Were the women a little stereotyped?
The narrative rhythm was unusually stop/start, in tune with Demon’s small wins and then big losses, so we felt uneasily caught in the unpredictable rollercoaster of his life. As someone said, “ hooked but also appalled”.
This story prompts great reflection on the nature/nurture debate, on the role of community and of wider society on the outcomes of an individual’s life. Kingsolver (and perhaps Dickens too) is suggesting that the strength of an individual’s character is their ability to deal with an awful lot – perhaps not to overcome, but to manage and cope in the face of adversity. Overall, a masterly contemporary story of America’s maligned ‘redneck’ society.
Other sources of interest on these issues
Dopesick ( Netflix)
Painkiller ( Netflix)
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
Notes on an Execution, Danya Kukafka
The Old Oak, Ken Loach (film on general release now)
Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance