Disclosure – I have not read this book but I will admit I am intrigued by it. My first awareness was a mention in my all things adoption group – Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead is the story of Appalachia from the viewpoint of a kid in foster care. Excellent book. Trigger Warning for folk who have been in neglectful or abusive foster care situations.
So I went looking. There is much about this that hits close to home – as in Kentucky is next door to my home state of Missouri and one learns to watch out for Copperhead snakes here. The opioid crisis and unwed teenage mothers, as well as abject poverty, matter to me. I find the Oprah has chose this book for her book club, LINK>Oprah’s Book Club Author Barbara Kingsolver Writes the “Great Appalachian Novel.” An interview there with the author gave me today’s blog title. Barbara Kingsolver’s writing is a form of activism, of righting wrongs. She wanted to address an injustice. Demon Copperhead is a social novel.
In the interview, the author says – I’m committed to writing honestly and respectfully about this region that is widely ridiculed or just invisible in mainstream American culture. Appalachia is beautiful and culturally rich, but a long history of exploitation has left us with structural poverty, limited opportunities, and educational deficits that outsiders tend to laugh at. In the latest of these tragedies—the opioid epidemic—pharmaceutical companies deliberately targeted us for their poison pill. Seeing the devastating effects here where I live moved me to look for the bigger picture and write about it.
In retelling Dicken’s David Copperfield, a boarding school for indigent boys becomes a beleaguered tobacco farm where foster boys are brought in to do unpaid labor. A shoe-black factory is a meth lab. The dangerous friend Steerforth is now “Fast Forward,” a high school football star with a narcissistic streak. Et cetera. She notes – A scary percentage of the kids in my region—as high as 30 percent—have lost their parents to prescription drug abuse. They are wards of the state, or are living with grandparents or others who might prefer not to be raising them. That’s the case with my fictional hero, Demon, and his ragtag band of friends. They want so badly to be seen, in a world that wants them erased.
When asked if she had a special interest in foster care, she replied – To write about a modern generation of kids orphaned by poverty and addiction, I had to dig in and understand the systems that support them—and those systems are inadequate. I was stunned to see how inadequate. DSS workers are absurdly underpaid. Turnover and caseloads are such that a child may not even know the name of his legal guardian, and vice versa. Cruelty and abuse are ongoing options. By telling some awful truths in the story and voice of Demon, maybe I can engage some hearts and minds to make a difference.
There is also a review in The Guardian – LINK>Dickens Updated. From that review – Kingsolver’s hero Damon Fields, known as Demon and nicknamed Copperhead for his red hair, is born to a drug-using teenage single mother in a trailer in Lee County, Virginia. Even in this deprived neighbourhood they stand out by being almost destitute, living between a coal camp “and a settlement people call Right Poor”. Since his mother is in and out of rehab, Demon is partly raised by the sprawling, warm-hearted Peggot clan. It’s all there in Dickens: the weak, infantile mother, ripe for abuse; the dead father and the disciplinarian boyfriend turned merciless stepfather; the bad odds against which no child stands a chance – and also the outsiders, some loving and others less so, who offer only a limited form of help.
Demon becomes a casualty of the “monster-truck mud rally of child services”: case workers who don’t read his file; foster parents who are only in it for the security cheque. Where David is packed off to gloomy Salem House, run by the sadistic Mr Creakle, Demon is quite literally farmed out to “this big old gray-looking house, like Amityville”, owned by a tobacco farmer called Crickson. Demon’s battle to achieve sobriety and to transcend the failure of those around him “to see the worth of boys like me, beyond what work can be wrung out of us by a week’s end. Farm field, battlefield, football field.”