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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver 2022 

Demon Copperhead starts life with two things – a mom and a caul. The 18-year-old drug-addicted mom is mostly passed out on the kitchen floor of her rented trailer during labor, and the caul might have killed him. 

Instead, local superstition decrees that he will never die by drowning. The point is mostly moot, except for one thing. His father died by drowning and shows up nowhere including on the birth certificate. This means the child will miss out on some government funds that he might have had. 

Demon Copperhead’s real name is Damon Fields, which quickly translates to the nickname. Demon because it sounds like Damon and Copperhead because of the red hair he inherited from his father. Children who get to close to a body of water are threatened with copperhead bites – except, there are no copperheads in the area where Demon grows up. 

Demon is neither demonic nor venomous; nevertheless, his prospects are not good. His mother has a regular job, but she is waylaid by her addictions, and, eventually, by an abusive husband. It pretty well goes downhill from there. 

Author Barbara Kingsolver was inspired to write “Demon Copperhead” by Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” The steps that the two characters take from birth to adulthood are similar. They are exploited, beaten, snubbed and starved at every turn. 

Demon Copperhead begins his life in the 1990s, while David Copperfield begins his in the 1820s. Dickens puts his character through hell with a spiritually devoid religious stepparent, child labor, cruel and inadequate schoolmasters, a false friend and easy access to drink. 

Barbara Kingsolver didn’t have to look hard to find similar pitfalls for her character. Child abuse and child labor still exist, pain management pills are perhaps more easily obtainable than drink was in Dickens’ time, and people who celebrate you one day are inclined to turn their backs on you the next. 

If you’ve read “David Copperfield” you’ll have a great time matching Kingsolver’s characters with Dickens’. You know what’s going to happen and who’s going to show up, but you’re a little on edge waiting to see what form the characters and the situation will take in Demon’s world. 

However, it’s not necessary to read Copperfield to enjoy Copperhead. Kingsolver gives her worldly-wise narrator a voice that is fast-paced, funny, insightful and moving. 

You’ll want to read this one. 

GAIL M. WILLIAMS

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