We have become (or have always been) divided; there is something wrong with the United States. The rich and the poor. Country people against city people. uninformed versus educated. Main Street vs. Wall Street What’s worse, we’re either too busy yelling condemnations at each other to drown out the other side or we’ve cottoned up our ears to block out the discourse rather than attempting to bridge the gap and find common ground along the route toward improvement.
The remarkable new book “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver, which is 560 pages long, begs us to stop doing both of those things. It urges us to examine their pleasures and hardships not with judgement, derision, or pity, but with open-mindedness and, if we can do it, empathy. It gives a bird’s-eye perspective into the day-to-day of a group of people often maligned or misunderstood: the rural poor of the Appalachian South.
Kingsolver’s epic is told by a self-described screwup with a heart of gold, much like Douglas Stuart’s riveting “Shuggie Bain” or Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” the novel upon which this one is based, with a few well-orchestrated current additions.
Demon (ne Damon) enthusiastically embraces his role as our straight-shooting tour guide to the overlooked regions of southwest Virginia. In a single-wide trailer “dead in the middle of Lee County, between the Ruelynn coal camp and a community called Right Poor, Demon was born to a widowed, drug-addicted mother.” Demon bounces from one progressively unstable foster family to the next when his mother overdoses and dies when he is 11 years old. He is unable to entirely forget his origins yet is hesitant to get past them.
At first look, many of Demon’s pit stops are what one might anticipate, as Kingsolver, who resides with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia, mainly relies on the gloomy imagery frequently associated with the region. For instance, the run-down, Amityville-style tobacco estate where Demon and the other short-term foster children held “pharm parties” filled of drugs and pills after the checked-out caregiver went to bed, where physical abuse was rampant.
In an obvious comparison to Dickens’ Dora, Demon’s later shack-up with waif lover Dori is equally instructive in its pessimism as the two fight to survive on their own without assistance. Despite the fact that Demon is also using at the time, Dori’s quick fall into opiate addiction is so horrific and tragic that it makes for difficult reading.
Unsurprisingly, a visibly furious Kingsolver doesn’t hold back when shedding light on the burnt-out, bureaucratized, largely ineffectual foster care system or when highlighting the pharmaceutical industry’s death grip on a population that is already trying to make ends meet. There is just war damage here, as she so beautifully puts it: “There is no more blood to offer. Madness. A universe of suffering that is seeking death.
However, Kingsolver really does best when she strikes a balance between that rage and letting Demon’s unwavering love for his house and the people who live in it come through. Some of the most sincere and moving passages in the book take place during Demon’s years as an unanticipated football superstar and budding artist, as well as his developing but unconditional friendships with fellow foster kid Tommy, childhood friend Maggot, and Angus, the daughter of the football coach with whom Demon temporarily stays. (Of note: Angus’ evolution into a slow-moving guardian angel from a strange makeshift sibling is one of the book’s highlights.)
On a smaller scale, Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” is packed with dramatic turns that, while not for the faint of heart, are also not all that surprising given the book’s subject matter, which ranges from widespread drug use to teen pregnancies to premature deaths, with plenty of hours logged at Walmart in between.
But it’s important to pay attention to the big picture. This book urges us to pay attention to and embrace a long-ignored neighbourhood and its residents, not in spite of our flaws or common weaknesses, but in spite of them.