It takes a lot of brass to undertake writing a contemporary version of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel “David Copperfield.” And it takes brilliance to pull it off.
Barbara Kingsolver has both.
Kingsolver’s wonderful new novel, “Demon Copperhead,” builds on the chassis of Dickens’ book to tell a story set almost two centuries later, not in industrial London but in the small towns of Appalachia in the 1990s. Her book is not an imitation but a salute, a work of inspiration, one that shares Dickens’ richness of plot and character and his concern with the consequences of grinding poverty and child exploitation, but also overflows with Kingsolver’s own exuberant wit and invention.
Dickens called “David Copperfield” his “darling,” his personal favorite among all his many novels — in part, no doubt, because it’s the most autobiographical of his books.
“Demon Copperhead” isn’t Kingsolver’s autobiography, although she did grow up in rural Kentucky, not far from the territory where her title character and narrator is born, in spectacularly dramatic fashion.
He’s delivered by a neighbor after she discovers his widowed teenage mother passed out drunk. He emerges still wrapped in the caul and struggling for his life from the first second like “a little blue prizefighter,” as his deliverer, Mrs. Peggot, says.
No-nonsense Mrs. Peggot and her vast extended clan will be the closest thing Demon has to a family. Demon Copperfield isn’t his real name — his sweet, hapless mama names him Damon Fields. The first name comes from his father, a mysterious figure who died in an accident before his son was born. Kids being kids, young Damon acquires the nickname Demon early on; Copperhead comes not from the snake but from his copper-penny hair.
His happy early childhood, spent roaming the woods with Peggot grandson Matthew (inevitably dubbed Maggot) and being doted on by his mother (when she’s not in rehab), comes to a screeching halt when she remarries. The stepfather is a truck driver named Stoner, who wastes no time abusing his new wife and kid.
“I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” Demon tells us at one point. “Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”
When Demon’s mother dies (on Demon’s 10th birthday), it’s from an overdose of something the boy has never heard of: OxyContin. He’ll hear a lot more about it as he grows up in the 1990s, and his mother won’t be the last person he loses to it.
But his immediate problem is being put into foster care, and not with the warm, stable Peggots. The local foster care system’s handling of older kids and teens is basically a form of slave labor, placing them in situations where they do dangerous and grueling work for no pay.
Demon’s jobs — while he’s still a preteen — include stripping freshly harvested tobacco, so toxic its sap can burn through clothing and flesh, and sorting giant mounds of household trash for salable recyclables, an enterprise that’s a side gig for a meth dealer. In one foster home, he sleeps on the laundry room floor and is underfed to the point of starvation.
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Like David Copperfield and so many other kids raised in poverty, Demon has an acute sense of social status and wealth, and of his own low place in that hierarchy: “I was a lowlife,” he says, “born in the mobile home, so that’s like the Eagle Scout of trailer trash.”
But when you’re a penniless kid, it’s tough to change any of that. Finally, desperate Demon runs away in search of his paternal grandmother, whom he knows only from his mother’s hair-raising stories.
Betsy Woodall turns out to be eccentric but, in her own peculiar way, loving, and she turns Demon’s luck around, finding him a foster home where his guardian is the football coach for the local high school. Coach Winfield’s teams win games, and hence he is regarded as a god walking upon the earth. Furthermore, he sees linebacker potential in Demon, even though he’s not yet 12 years old.
And there’s the coach’s daughter, Angus. Unlike Demon’s earlier crush, flirtatious and manipulative Emmy (one of Maggot’s countless cousins), Angus is ruthlessly honest, and unlike almost everyone else he knows, her aim is to go to college and move to a city — an unthinkable leap to Demon.
For a brief shining moment, Demon is a football star (and Kingsolver made me care about high school football, no mean feat). Then comes the injured knee. We can fix it, the doctor assures him. “The prescription would hold me until then. I stopped caring around this point because the little white submarine-shaped pill he’d given me to swallow was starting to sing its pretty song in my head. Cool relief, baby, let’s you and me go cruising Main. Just hold my hand. Lortab was her name. Blessed, blessed lady.”
Demon’s journey into addiction in his mother’s footsteps and beyond takes a harrowing path through love and betrayal, violence and redemption.
“Demon Copperhead” is Kingsolver’s ninth novel, after such books as “Pigs in Heaven,” “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Flight Behavior.”
Although Dickens’ book is woven into this novel’s DNA, it won’t matter if you never read “David Copperfield” and faked your way through that 10th-grade book report. “Demon Copperhead” stands on its own.
Kingsolver winks at the connection when Demon is assigned to read it. He’s impressed with Dickens, “one seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.”
Dickens is not the only literary spirit animating this book, though. One of its greatest delights is Demon’s voice, by turns hopeful and weary, naive and knowing, heartbreaking and hilarious — calling to mind one of the most unforgettable narrators in American literature, Huckleberry Finn. Like Mark Twain’s orphan boy, Demon keeps us on his side with his empathy and courage, even in the darkest of hours.
By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 548 pages, $32.50