Appalachia is a place that’s often ignored, forgotten or written over. When the region does become the subject of a book, as rarely as that may be, it’s frequently misrepresented. Barbara Kingsolver brings a notably different energy from her previous work to Demon Copperhead, a novel that dwells in the challenges of impoverished southern Appalachian communities and honors the ways in which our landscapes shape us. She does all this through a tremendous narrative voice, one so sharp and fresh as to overwhelm the reader’s senses.
In many ways, Demon Copperhead is a novel of survival—of finding one’s way through the mess of it all and living with dignity. Demon is born into poverty with only his teenage mother to call family, though she later becomes entangled in an abusive relationship. He faces such challenges as the foster system, child labor and his own desire to find success and a meaning for his life. At each turn, he finds ways to make things work. He’s willing to take risks, he cares about his people and community, and he often looks for the best in a moment, even if he doesn’t fully understand what he’s facing. With each choice, Demon’s spirit comes through, and it is haunting. It’s the reason the pages keep turning, as it’s imperative for the reader to find out how he’s going to get out of the latest mess or scrape, how he’s going to find his family and his own story.
Demon’s story—a tale of growth, challenges, sorrow and surprises—is both a retelling of and in conversation with David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ novel about an orphan surviving in Victorian England, which was inspired by the author’s early life. Similarly, Kingsolver’s Demon is spunky and full of life as he navigates a complex, uneasy world. But Kingsolver has made this story her own, and what a joy it is to slip into this world and inhabit it, even with all its challenges.