“Dead in the heart of Lee County, between the Ruelynn coal camp and a settlement people call Right Poor, the top of a road between two steep mountains is where our single-wide was set,” says the 10-year old Damon of where he lives. Nicknamed “Demon Copperhead” for his red hair, Damon lives with his mother on the property of the Peggots, and his best friend is Matt Peggot, known as “Maggot.”
Readers meet Demon in the early pages of “Demon Copperhead,” the ninth novel by Barbara Kingsolver. Here, she transfers the setting of “David Copperfield” from 1820s England to late 20th-century Lee County, Va..
“David Copperfield” was Charles Dickens’s most personal novel. After he abandoned an attempt to write his own autobiography because it was too painful, he fictionalized his story, which was released in 20 installments between 1849 and 1850.
It’s not clear that using “David Copperfield” is the best way to tell Demon’s story. Take the circumstances of Demon’s life. When Copperfield describes his location he says, “I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘thereby’ as they say in Scotland.” Dickens’ contemporary readers would have known that boy born to a widowed mother in an isolated town would enter the world with enormous social and financial deficits. To create the same understanding, Kingsolver must make clear Demon’s straitened circumstances. She hangs markers of poverty — the coal country location, a town considered “right poor” — like wind chimes on Demon’s single-wide trailer to catch her readers’ ears.
Maggot’s family provide Demon with the family his widowed mother cannot. “I called her Mammaw … I knew his cousins were not my cousins, nor was Mr. Peggot my grandpa. But I thought all kids got a mammaw, along with a caseworker and free school lunch and the canned beanie-weanies they gave you in a bag to take home for weekends.” The Peggots provide moments of joy, moments in Demon’s life that Kingsolver allows him before plunging him back into sorrow.
“A kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing,” Demon says. His new stepfather beats him, his mother dies of an oxycodone overdose, he is shipped out to various foster families, and he finally runs away where he meets his previously unknown grandmother and his fortunes begin to turn. Despite the safety nets a child in Dickens’s time could only dream about, in Kingsolver’s depiction of her Appalachian setting, virtually no one gets out alive.
Kingsolver makes little mention of Appalachian history or resilience. In Lee County, manufacturing and coal mining have disappeared and have been replaced with a service economy where those who work do so in box stores or fast food and make minimum wage. The history of miners’ unions, the cultural inheritance ranging from music to arts and crafts, a sense of place, all are absent. Those who escape the area and move to larger cities return when they find that their accents and country ways make them objects of derision. And despite small mentions of Demon’s mixed-race ancestry, race is never an issue. Instead, Demon seems to instinctively understand that racial epithets are only used by “a**holes,” just as ignorant folks call his people “hillbillies.”
In seeking to raise awareness of child hunger and poverty in the United States, Kingsolver turns her characters’ lives into tales of misery and the inevitability of failure. Her characters wallow in dark hollows with little light, condemned to forever repeat the horrific mistakes of previous generations. She makes the people of Appalachia into objects of pity, but in doing so, also intimates that falling into drug abuse, rejecting education, and “clinging” to their ways are moral choices that keep them in their dire circumstances. Appalachia becomes the region of the damned.
Novels entertain, and many have also argued that reading novels increases our empathy for others. But one of the problems with social novels intended to heighten our understanding is that in writing about traumas, the writer risks turning suffering into entertainment, and stripping the characters of agency. The trauma that Dickens wrote about were some that he had himself experienced. Knowing how his own story ended gave him control over what he felt readers should know, and what might move his peers to act on behalf of indigent women and children.
Numbed by excess, the wealthy of 19th century London engaged in slum tourism; the horrors they saw became sources of entertainment. Kingsolver wrote “Demon Copperhead” with the best of intentions, an attempt to force Americans to reckon with how vast income disparities have resulted in Americans living in the direst circumstances. By focusing on children, she clearly hoped to arouse anger. But even the assumption that all children are innocent is a privileged one most often bestowed on white, able-bodied, and attractive kids. As has become painfully clear, Americans can’t even agree that a 10-year old pregnant child is entitled to our compassion.
Kingsolver dedicates her book to “the survivors,” those kids, she says in her acknowledgments, “who wake up hungry in those dark places every day.” She also claims kinship with them, having grown up in the Appalachians, and credits her own “Mammaw and Pappaw” for the stories they shared with her. But these are not Kingsolver’s own experiences.
“Demon Copperhead” becomes a form of poverty porn, a slum tour where pity is the price of the ride. Those on display can only stare back.
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 560 pages, $29.99
Lorraine Berry lives in Oregon and tweets @BerryFLW.