Attempting a modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is certainly an ambitious undertaking, but readers are in good hands with Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead.
While Dickens’ coming of age novel details the poverty and exploitation of the eponymous David Copperfield, an orphan struggling to make a life for himself in 1850s England, Kingsolver transplants this story to southwest Virginia in the early 2000s where poverty and addiction plague rural communities. The result is a poignant and powerful narrative that sheds light on the flaws and corruption of those institutions that damage the very people that it strives to support.
Kingsolver’s Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead for his burnished red hair, begins the narrative with a harrowing recount of his birth to a drug addicted, teenage single mother, and thus begins the ongoing struggles that characterise Demon’s life. Those who have read David Copperfield will be familiar with these tribulations as Kingsolver closely follows the structure of Dickens’ novel, making appropriate changes and additions to suit her chosen setting. The odds are stacked against Demon growing up in impoverished Lee County, living in a trailer, reliant on school provided lunches, and his mother having regular stints in rehab to keep custody of him. Thankfully, he has Mr and Mrs Peggot living nearby, raising their grandson Maggot (aka Matthew) while his mother is in prison, and they become de facto grandparents to Demon.
Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.
Fundamentally, Kingsolver remains true to Dickens’ original characters and the role they play in his novel, even giving them names that closely align with those assigned to them in David Copperfield. Hence, the arrival of Demon’s stepfather, the controlling and abusive motorbike riding Stoner whose explosive relationship with Demon and manipulation of his submissive mother instigates Demon’s removal from their home into the foster care system. While Dickens novel exposed his readers to the cruel use of child labour in Victorian England, Kingsolver likewise reveals a foster care system where Demon is taken in by adults who are motivated by free labour and monthly payments from the DSS rather than the desire to genuinely care for him. Demon is underfed, taken out of school for a month to work all day harvesting tobacco and forced to work an afterschool job sifting through rubbish. His exploitation and the indifference and lack of understanding from the adults around him cause Demon to be cynical about his prospects. The reader cannot help but empathise with Demon and despise the system that turns a blind eye to his suffering.
The teachers, principal, and Miss Barks all gave me the same lecture on how I was not working hard or living up to my potential. I had no fight with them. You get to a point of not giving a damn over people thinking you’re worthless…Do you seriously think this is the person I wanted to end up living inside of?
When Demon finally reaches his breaking point within the foster care system, he makes a desperate attempt to find the only family he has – his paternal grandmother. Demon’s life is set in a different direction when he meets his grandmother, Betsy Woodall, and although she is determined not to raise another boy, she finds him a suitable home with Coach Winfield and his daughter Angus. Demon develops a firm friendship with clever and independent Angus and Coach Winfield sees the potential in Demon as a football player; this allows Demon to experience success and popularity amongst his peers – the kind of belonging that Demon has been yearning for. However, he can never escape the sense that his good fortune is only temporary.
Christmas was coming, and I was nervous of Coach getting done with me. This being the time of year people start noticing who’s family and who’s not.
Kingsolver takes a major departure from her source material when Demon finds himself in thrall of an addiction. In doing so she exposes the opioid crisis that has devastated America since the mid-90s and showing how individuals can, without intention, find themselves in a situation where they become reliant on prescription opioids. When Demon falls for the alluring and helpless Dori Spenser, the two become partners in their addiction, unable to break the cycle.
It becomes your job, staving off the dopesickness for another day. Then it becomes your God. Nobody ever wanted to join that church. A bad day is waking up with nothing, no God, no means.
Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead provides insight into the experiences of those Americans who struggle to stay afloat and feel they live in a society that has taken advantage of them and left them behind. Demon is a sympathetic figure and I swiftly became invested in his story and his fortunes, hoping that he would be able to rise above his adverse circumstances and forge a better life for himself. Kingsolver’s intention is more than just the retelling of a classic novel; it is an opportunity to shed light on the ways wealth and class are still used to determine an individual’s value and chances of success in American society. I felt for Demon because he was never able to get on a firm enough footing to take the next step to break out of the cycle of poverty highlighting that it is very easy to blame and judge individuals for the state of their lives without really knowing how much they have to overcome with very little resources and support to work with in the first place. Demon Copperhead is Kingsolver’s way of giving such individuals a voice.
Back in 2009, having just read Barbara Kingsolver’s riveting The Poisonwood Bible, I eagerly delved into her newly released novel The Lacuna. Set in Mexico City and exploring the complicated relationship between acclaimed artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and their association with Soviet exile Leon Trotsky, Kingsolver’s writing inspired me to make my own journey to Mexico…where I subsequently met my husband. Hence, I have a deep appreciation for Kingsolver’s works and she has certainly delivered again with Demon Copperhead.