Review of Pulitzer and Women’s Prize-winning ‘Demon Copperhead’ by Barbara Kingsolver: a solid takedown of America’s structural poverty and drugs crisis 

The story draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield

Updated - June 23, 2023 05:25 pm IST

Published - June 23, 2023 12:00 pm IST

The honours piling up for American writer Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Demon Copperhead have held the focus on the book more than six months after it was published to great anticipation, and its opening line is now perhaps the most well-known in recent years: “First, I got myself born.” 

In a writing career spanning more than three decades, Kingsolver, whose previous novels include The Poisonwood BibleProdigal Summer and Unsheltered, has won acclaim and prizes. Now, over the past couple of months, for Demon Copperhead, she has got the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

In a story that insistently draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, nothing that transpires in the life of Damon Fields, aka Demon Copperhead, is short of an achievement. The fact that he survived his birth — got himself born — in the Appalachian region of Virginia to an 18-year-old addict living in a trailer and drifting along on a scant reserve of smarts was a marvel in itself.

And Kingsolver suggests that for Demon to be able to tell his story, to be in a position to tell his story — to tell it unhurried, in its multihued arc, with every detail of poverty, abuse, hunger, exploitation, addiction, loneliness, aloneness, serendipity, the occasional kindness that came his way — is an accomplishment that few with his life chances could have managed. He gets his story told.

Having been born to a teenage mother, Demon’s is a rollercoaster ride, and he narrates it with compassion, for others, and most of all for himself. In telling his story, Demon does not just give his younger self moral support and a patient hearing. There is always a lingering understanding that given a better roll of the dice, he could have fared better. It is an older self giving a hug to his lonely younger self, steadying him; Kingsolver dignifies his life by not letting us look away. 

For example: “But hard work? Let me tell you what that is: trying to get through every day without the gangling ugly menace of you being stared at, shamed by a teacher, laughed at by girls, or sucker punched. Again, if you’ve been there, you know. If you have to guess, you might not even be close. All these people had to keep on asking and asking: Why was I flunking out? What could I do but look at the wall and say nothing, just sorry. I was learning to love the brutal burnt screw-you taste of that word I’d been given to eat forever. Sorry.”

‘I love fiction that educates me on the sly,’ said author Barbara Kingsolver in a 2018 interview.

‘I love fiction that educates me on the sly,’ said author Barbara Kingsolver in a 2018 interview. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Kingsolver quotes from David Copperfield at the outset: “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” And the influence she seeks to exert is to direct the reader’s gaze towards the structural poverty that stacks the odds insurmountably against those born into it — in Appalachia, in this case.

Overlaying the neglect is the opioid crisis that ripped through the region, and whose effects continue to reverberate in the United States. When a care worker tells Demon that his mother has died, he tells her he doesn’t believe her, but were it to be indeed true, what did she die of? She replies “oxy”. “Believe it or not,” recalls Demon, “I had to ask. What’s oxy?”

It’s OxyContin, of course, and in the course of the years ahead, as he’s put in foster homes, as he makes a run for it, as the system beats him, as he sees his big chance of escape in sports, he sees others beg, steal or sell themselves for “oxy”. In time, he too finds himself bouncing down that maelstrom. 

In a 2018 interview, Kingsolver said, “I love fiction that educates me on the sly, especially about something I didn’t realise I wanted to know.” She could, in fact, have been summing up her own fiction-writing.

Demon Copperhead
Barbara Kingsolver

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.