By Diana Swingler
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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver review—you won’t use ‘hillbilly’ again

This article is over 1 years, 6 months old
Barbara Kingsolver challenges the popular stereotypes of the US small-town and rural poor as ‘hillbillies’ and ‘trailer trash’
The front cover of Barabara Kingsolver Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver returns to her home region in Demon Copperhead

If you’re a Barbara Kingsolver fan like me, you probably started with the powerful, anti-imperialist novel The Poisonwood Bible, set in the last days of colonial Congo. You will probably have been struck by her range of settings, her commitment to important political themes and her wonderful way with words ever since.  

With her new novel Demon Copperhead, set in Lee County, Virginia, Kingsolver returns to her home region to write what she aims to be The Great Appalachian Novel. She seeks to challenge the popular stereotypes of “hillbillies” and “trailer trash” as being fundamentally anti-working class and undermining the remnants of communal traditions among the smalltown and rural poor.

Kingsolver considers who benefits from upholding these stereotypes and rips into the capitalist class. This includes the industrialists and governments responsible for causing mass unemployment across the region. Her main target, however, is the pharmaceuticals industry in the early 2000s. 

In the wake of economic devastation, the Purdue company created large scale prescription drug-addiction, misery and death. It pushed the (now) discredited drug Oxycontin in poor communities. “The more I dug into Lee County, the more I saw Purdue’s exploits as the latest in the long train of big-money operations coming here to scoop out our resources, get rich and leave a mess behind,” Kingsolver writes. 

“It’s no accident that Appalachia is poor, that our schools often don’t meet national standards, that we have almost no industries other than mining. Those were deliberate choices imposed by coal executives, to keep people in the mines. 

“Then mechanisation replaced most of the mine jobs, leaving us with staggering unemployment and a lot of despair. Our people, our timber and coal powered the country’s industrial revolution, but robbed us of its rewards. Now the national culture shames us for backwardness.”  

It is an exposing and angry novel and will be widely read because Kingsolver is an incredibly engaging and popular writer. She excels at local, immersive story-telling, based on individuals and families to highlight wider social and political themes. Her young protagonist-narrator in Demon Copperhead declares, far sooner than we hope any child would learn, Anyone will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.” 

This time she uses the structure, themes and characters of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to explore the continuation of capitalist exploitation in the 21st century. And in particular, how this affects the young. She wanted to look at the experiences of children whose parents are addicted to drugs, and the experiences of many children in care.  

Kingsolver says she had been considering this novel for a long time. But, she says, “Let’s face it, the opioid epidemic is not a pretty picture. Readers might not think they want to see that world. How could I invite them into it, and keep them on the edge of their seats?” 

Kingsolver looked to Dickens and how he used the “bildungsroman” genre to give the narrative voice to a child growing up in hardship. “Poverty that’s ingrained in a place, children who feel thrown away,” she says. “Dickens knew those hardships from his own childhood. I’m sure the polite society of his time wanted to look away, too, but he didn’t let them.” 

Kingsolver’s website describes Demon Copperhead as “the story of a boy born to a teenage single mother in a single-wide trailer” He has “no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-coloured hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival.” 

Demon (born Damon) has a very difficult early childhood but he knows love. Not just his mother’s, but the family from a neighbouring trailer, who do their best to support him and his addicted mother despite their own difficulties.   

When his mother dies from an overdose, the orphaned Demon is moved away and placed with a series of foster carers who have very poor means themselves. He is subjected to hunger, missing school and labouring in hazardous conditions. With no oversight from social workers.  

Kingsolver exposes a social care system which claims to protect and nurture children, but is so underfunded it has abandoned the notion of child wellbeing. It’s underpaid, overloaded caseworkers struggle with bare resources and demoralisation, either becoming cynical or leaving to avoid this. 

At school, Demon is not the only Melungeon child—mixed heritage people in the south eastern US—and many are from trailers in the hills. It is being a child that no individual adult cares for which makes him feel different. 

He wears cast-off work clothes, rarely gets a haircut, summer holidays just mean working full time instead of part time. He tries to hide that he is in foster care, mainly by hardly talking so other children won’t ask questions, but he fails. The stigma attaches and can’t be shaken. On getting a new set of clothes he knows “nothing would change. Now they’d all think I was that much more pitiful, because of trying. Loser is a cliff. Once you’ve gone over, you’re over.” 

School is only superficially concerned with why he is not doing better in his grades. After going from one wretched foster placement to another, Demon understands no adult is listening. Eventually he runs. 

There are many plot turns in this novel, one of which sees Demon achieving brief success in county football. Judged by his value on the field, he is celebrated and a different life appears possible. He turns out to be a commodity that shines bright but briefly, before an injury and prescription Oxycontin lead him back to hell. 

Being taken care of, human touch, continuity of relationships elude this child, who is aware he has never experienced “childhood”. It is heartbreaking to see the hope diminish as the years pass.  

Demon has always dreamt of an affinity with the ocean after being told he can never die of drowning, due to being born in his caul, the membrane around a foetus. He may never see the ocean. 

The caul theme is one of the countless references to David Copperfield in this book. The reworking is successful in its approach. The functions of the similar characters sometimes work well—for example the charismatic but dangerous “Steerforth”. But at times the novel becomes a hostage to it. I was glad it has been a long time since I read David Copperfield—and you don’t need to have read it at all—as the comparisons could be too distracting.  

From early on, Demon occupies himself inventing and drawing superheroes, people who come to the rescue. As he battles to make his way through life, his drawings turn to comic strips and engage with the world around him. His talent had been nurtured by two anti-establishment school teachers, themselves marginalised at the school. They urge him to explore some history of race and class and to express himself through art. What could have taken a cynical direction becomes subversive. This signals the return of hope.   

It is a shame there is no reference to the history of working class struggle in the area. Those two teachers would at least have known about the 1960s when an Appalachian working class movement grew. It organised to direct a federal anti-poverty program around issues such as safety at work, the environment, health and welfare rights. This is not to criticise the novel for not suggesting revolutionary solutions. It’s more that it presents working class people as victims, overlooking their collective agency and the reforms they have achieved and continue to fight for.  

However, the novel’s power is in resonating with the experiences of working class children across the world and how the authorities are not listening to them. And the submission of children to adults in society, in general, is at question here. There are the looked-after children in Rochdale, who were made vulnerable to sexual exploitation and not heard when they asked for help. The children in Britain caring for parents and siblings due to inadequate social care provision. And the children labouring on behalf of multinationals around the globe.  

As promised by Kingsolver, her novel is not just tragic and miserable but witty, hopeful and compelling.  And you are not likely to use the term “hillbilly” again.  

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