David Copperfield in Our Times

Animal Dreams (1990) is American writer Barbara Kingsolver’s second novel, but it’s the first one I read, and during the past thirty years, I’ve read it at least twice more. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, it spoke to me in the early nineties as if it were written just for me. It’s obvious why I would enjoy the book; the story manages to be at the same time gripping, moving, romantic, sad, thought-provoking, and very funny. But it’s not at all clear to me why I would fall in love with it. It’s about a young woman returning to her home town in Arizona where almost everyone she is close to is either Native American or Hispanic, and she is not. She has dropped out of medical school, her sister is helping farmers in Nicaragua, and her father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I won’t tell you more, because of spoilers, but I eventually decided that my fascination with the book might have to do with me living in Puerto Rico from five to fifteen but not being Puerto Rican, and how that made me feel.

Now I’ve just finished another magnificent Kingsolver book, Demon Copperhead, which came out in 2022 and was named one of the best books of the year by both The Washington Post and The New York Times. It’s a brilliant adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, set in a coalmining county in Appalachian Virginia during the height of the opiate crisis. Like David Copperfield, Kingsolver’s hero Daman Fields, a redhead nicknamed Demon Copperhead, is humiliated and savagely beaten by his stepfather while his mother stands helplessly by, is cared for as a child by the loving Peggot family, and is eventually forced into foster care, where he endures even more mistreatment. What saves this tale from being unendurably sad is Demon’s narration of his own story with a combination of humor, irony, and empathy with his fellow sufferers that makes him a deeply sympathetic figure.

As Demon moves toward adolescence, he falls under the spell of an older boy whose manner and lifestyle he envies and longs to adopt. In the Dickens novel, this charming but destructive character is Steerforth, considered by those around him to be a gentleman. In Kingsolver’s book, the lethal equivalent, nicknamed Fast Forward, is a high-school hero and football quarterback. The seductive leisure of a wealthy, upper-class life that Steerforth represents in the nineteenth century novel is transformed by Kingsolver into the lure of taking Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, and the other opiates that Fast Forward pushes on his so-called friends. It’s a fascinating metaphor that Kingsolver creates: drugs seeming to provide the poverty-stricken Appalachian community with the same kind of freedom from life’s insoluble problems that being a gentleman appeared to offer in Dickens’s day. Like Dickens, Kingsolver shows us that it isn’t the characters in the novel who are to blame for their suffering but the system that exploits them: in this case, the drug company representatives and the doctors who offer their patients prescriptions for painkillers to treat their backaches, bum knees, and mining-related injuries until they become addicts.

Elizabeth Lowry, who reviewed the book for The Guardian, sums up its power when she writes, “Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead  . . . feels in many ways like the book she was born to write. The idealism and concern with social justice that are characteristic of Kingsolver’s worldview find their natural counterpart in Dickens’s impassioned social criticism.”

I should add that, like many of the novels I’ve reviewed in my blog, I listened to this book instead of reading it and was gripped by the narration. There is nothing that irritates me more than actors who assume artificial “southern” accents. However, to my ears, accustomed to years of visiting my parents and sister in the western parts of Virginia and North Carolina, the novel’s reader Charlie Thurston takes on the distinctive voice of Demon without a hitch.

Like David Copperfield, this Kingsolver novel has a great many pages. I thought the time it took to get through it was well worth it. I hope you will, too.

Barbara Kingsolver (Photo by Evan Kafka)

The photograph the opens this book review is of Lee County, Virginia, where Demon Copperfield is born and raised.

4 thoughts on “David Copperfield in Our Times

    1. Thanks, Chris. Kingsolver was born in Kentucky and has been living in the southwestern corner of Virginia for years, so I imagine she truly knows what she’d talking about.

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