By Jeff Dey
This week, I finished Demon Copperhead, the celebrated latest novel by Barbara Kingsolver. It has won both the Pulitzer Prize and (in my opinion, even better) the Weatherford Award given by the Appalachian Studies Association. The idea for the book started when Kingsolver was visiting England and had a ‘conversation’ with Charles Dickens. With the late Charles’ help, she decided to write a book that built itself around parallel characters to those in Dickens’ David Copperfield but in the setting of modern day Appalachia during the early stages of the current opiate crisis. As in Dickens’ work, the book is narrated by the principal character, Demon Copperhead, whose life is laid out in the text. The result is a book that is vivid, disturbing and realistic with many scenes echoing Dickens but with a new powerful voice and relevance to our day.
In this book, Kingsolver deals with the wreckage of the opiate crisis and the way that the pharmaceutical industry created an entirely new route to addiction despite seeming to want to prevent it. She also presents the ways in which the bureaucracy designed to protect children in crisis lacks the teeth to do it successfully while children are often stranded in a system with limited options. That system includes Department of Social Services workers who don’t make adequate money to justify their training and commitment to the work. Many either give up or burn out. Kingsolver addresses the shifting economy of Central Appalachia and its transition away from mining. While the story is a coming-of-age story of Demon as he navigates childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, it’s also a story of a region in shifting times.
A significant theme is the weakness of the foster care system either due to lack of resources, or the economy by which potential foster parents use the financial incentives to handle their personal financial circumstances rather than the care of the foster children. In some cases, the foster children are expected to pull their own weight through working as minors with little concern for their health or education.
One of the ways Kingsolver navigates this dark territory is through humor, with Demon using a sense of humor to survive along with many of the others in the story. The use of clever nicknames is one of many tactics – in the case of Demon (Damon) he also gained the nickname Diamond from another character with the nickname, Fast Forward. Another is a sort of gallows humor which many of the characters share. Further, Demon’s interest in drawing allows an outlet for his feelings and observations as well as a potential vocation.
Important to the story are some strong female characters. While Demon’s mother seems to be the source of so many of his life’s difficulties, there are many strong female characters. His friend’s Aunt June, his grandmother Miss Betsy and friend Angus (Agnes) play key roles in helping him work through a series of bad breaks and, often, his own poor choices in response to them.
While sports (such as football) are presented as a potential source of opportunity (scholarships, etc.), they also pose the potential risk of injury. Poor healthcare options often make pain medication the preferred treatment over surgery, physical therapy, etc. Thus, it’s easy to get into a downward spiral of addiction. The timing of the story finds us right at the beginning of the ‘miracle’ drug of Oxycontin – initially promoted as non-addictive. Seen through the eyes of Aunt June (a nurse who observes this firsthand), we now know that, tragically, this was not the case. This is the central theme in the book as the opioid crisis affects multiple generations who suffer from addiction themselves, PTSD from acting as caregivers or both. The route to addiction can begin with pain treatment for a sports injury, a work injury from mining, construction or agricultural employment, a cancer diagnosis and more. The result of this has been an industry of pain management which has had mixed results in treating it without adverse side effects.
Recent non-fiction books such as Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones and Dopesick by Beth Macy have arrived at describing the opiate crisis by documenting the events in a novel-like form. Meanwhile, fiction writers like Kingsolver as well as Carter Sickels (The Evening Hour), Robert Gipe (Trampoline, Weedeater and Pop) and the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s own Michael Henson (Maggie Boylan) have used fiction effectively to tell the true story of the opiate crisis and more.
Another theme is one which is very well known among urban Appalachians – that of leaving and returning. Characters struggle with the desire to leave (to get away or to find better jobs, etc.) while pulled by a desire to return to the familiar places of their birth. But, as Demon points out, “Most families would sooner forgive you for going to prison than for moving out of Lee County.”
Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, while lengthy (550 pages), proves to be well worth the read. While some have said it could have been shorter, I don’t think she could have captured the richness of the story in fewer pages. The reader needs to experience Demon’s pain in order to really understand it and empathize with him enough to root for him throughout the story. I know I did!
Jeff Dey is a founding member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition with decades-long involvement in Cincinnati’s Appalachian community. While perhaps best known for his excellent pie making skills, Jeff is also instrumental in maintaining the Frank Foster Library and other aspects of UACC’s archives. Jeff and his husband Mike Maloney live in Kennedy Heights.