Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver rarely disappoints, but I was nervous about reading this adaptation of David Copperfield, a favorite classic.  Copperfield is considered to be most autobiographical of Dickens’ works, which explains why it feels much more “real” to me. I don’t always love adaptations, because they often hew so closely to names and details that the story feels forced. Happily, Demon Copperfield didn’t disappoint; it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year.

Sadly, David Copperfield resonates today for a reason – children continue to be traumatized by poverty, abuse, and addiction, and the child welfare system typically lacks the resources needed to protect them. But Copperfield also resonates because it’s a story of struggle and courage and resilience, and Kingsolver transports this story perfectly into rural Virginia in the 1990s. 

In Kingsolver’s story, Demon (born Damon Fields) is born to a single mother who struggles with addiction.  He’s fortunate to have kind neighbors who look after him, particularly after his mother begins seeing an abusive man.  Demon’s troubled childhood leads him down many dangerous paths; he experiences great tragedy, but also kindness and inspiration. 

I always appreciate when an author can write from the viewpoint of a child and have it feel like you’re experiencing that child growing in maturity.  Even though the narrator is clearly describing his life from the perspective of an adult, young Demon feels young, and teenage Demon sounds like a teenager. Kingsolver occasionally reminds us that our narrator is an adult, but most of the time you feel like you’re right there with Demon as he grows and develops. 

If the grown-up version of me could have one chance at walking backwards into this story, part of me wishes I could sit down on the back pew with that pissed-off kid in his overly tight church clothes and Darkhawk attitude, and tell him: You think you’re giant but you are such a small speck in the screwed-up world. This is not about you.

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Kingsolver excels when writing about the place she calls home. She was raised in rural Kentucky but has lived in many places, until settling in rural Virginia. Her books, which have been set in the Southwest, in Africa, and in the Appalachians, have always reflected her own experiences. That, in addition to her beautiful way with words, is what makes her books feel so real.

A key aspect of this book that resonated strongly, and elevates it to more than just an adaptation, is its look at the opioid crisis of the 90s in rural America. Like Dopesick and Transcendent Kingdom, among others, this book will give you a new understanding of the opioid crisis, by experiencing it through characters you feel intimately connected with. 

Kingsolver constantly reminds us that the rural poor are not only forgotten by those of us who live in cities, they are routinely belittled and dehumanized. She also reminds us that people who live in rural America have a closer connection to nature and the environment. I think these are important things for me to remember, and why reading good fiction can help us understand each other better. 

I also appreciated that while some of the foster care system depicted in this book was troubling, it wasn’t all bad. There are social workers, teachers, and foster parents who care and are doing their best to help.  Foster care is a system where we often hear only the bad things, but it’s important to be aware of the good that so many are doing. 

There’s a lot that researchers don’t know about child trauma; we know that traumatic experiences often have long term effects, but also that some children can rise above those experiences with the help of kind, caring adults. (For a fascinating and comprehensive read on trauma, I recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Knows the Score.) In this book I was left thinking about the many ways that we can help children succeed even when the odds are against them. 

I read this as an e-book and by audio. At first I didn’t care for the audio narrator, but then I realized that the narrator’s tone and accent is integral to the story Kingsolver is telling, and I couldn’t quite read it the same way in my own head. That’s where an audiobook can be really powerful.

I think this book works whether you’ve read David Copperfield or not. This is a masterful work by Kingsolver, and one I’m very glad I read.

  12 comments for “Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. Sally Jane Smith, Travel Author
    December 19, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Have you read The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare? I feel you’d find it a worthwhile read. Not sure why this blog made me think of that – maybe because the narrator is a young person with a powerful voice that markedly matures as the novel progresses.

    • December 19, 2022 at 4:08 pm

      Thank you for the recommendation! I’ve heard of that book but haven’t read it. I think writing young voices well is a real skill.

  2. December 19, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    I’m looking forward to this!

  3. December 19, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    I’m definitely adding this to my tbr. Awesome review!

  4. December 19, 2022 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the review. I am planning on reading this in January (and finding it under the Xmas tree). David Copperfield is one of my all-time favorite books also, so I have been a bit worried about this take on it, but it seems Kingsolver has not let us down! I might take your advice and do a read/listen approach as I think the accent/tone could enhance the experience.

    • December 22, 2022 at 9:41 am

      For me it was a nice blend of homage to the source material (lots of references, similar names, etc) but providing a fresh and modern take on the story. I hope you’ll agree! I haven’t read David Copperfield in quite a while so you might be much more knowledgeable about the story. A potential weakness is that the Uriah Heep character didn’t feel very realistic, but that was probably a weakness in the original story as well.

      • December 22, 2022 at 6:29 pm

        Just reading the name Uriah Heep makes my skin crawl.

  5. December 20, 2022 at 3:43 am

    So glad to hear you enjoyed this and that it made your favourite books of the year list. I’ve enjoyed so many of Kingsolver’s books, but there’s always that hesitation when an author takes on such a project as this one purports to have.

    • December 22, 2022 at 9:43 am

      Yes, I completely agree. Any retelling of a classic is going to be challenging, but I thought it was well done, which I think is because Kingsolver cares so much about telling the stories about the Appalachian region well.

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