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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

"First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they've already given me that much: the worst part of the job was up to me, my mother being let's just say out of it."

Born in a mobile home in Lee County, Virginia to a drug-using teenage mother, Damon Fields starts life with all odds stacked against him. Soon he will only be known as Demon – for the attitude – Copperhead – for the hair. His early childhood is destitute but in many ways happy. When his mum is not in rehab he looks after keeping her clean and employed. But he gets to roam the fields with his friend Maggot whose family, the kind-hearted Peggots, feed him and offer him the closest thing to a family he knows. It is a vast plot to summarise and everyone who has read David Copperfield will be able to get an idea of what is going to happen to young Demon. Orphaned at ten he has to face the foster system and rely on help and care from strangers that more often than not turns out to be motivated by selfish ambitions. From the violent farmer Creakle, who keeps taking in a handful of foster children as seasonal workers to the hapless and increasingly desperate McCobbs that view fostering as a business opportunity, Lee County is a place where everyone has to look after their own struggles first and no one has much time and money to spare for the countless children in need.

"How screwed-up is it that the DSS can't be bothered about Creaky being hateful as a snake, but they're all high-beams and every step you take, as regards the druggie mother?"

Through a strike of luck, Demon finds a home with coach Winfield, the High School’s football coach and something of a local hero. For the first time in his life all that is expected of him is to be a kid. “Weird,” Demon thinks. “I’d not had that job before.” By this point, the kid that no one wanted for so long cannot fathom that there are people who only have his best interest at heart, no strings attached. He feels undeserving and indebted, ready to prove himself and even more ready to be let down, found out as unworthy and passed on to the next house. So when he makes Coach’s football team and finds himself popular among his classmates, he is willing to do everything to fulfil people’s expectations. As a reader, you start dreading to turn the page. You can feel the inevitable drawing closer and sure enough: a football injury puts his blossoming career to a halt. Winfield wants his beloved player back on the field as soon as possible but healthcare in rural Virginia is hard to come by. It will be weeks before Demon can get an MRI, but no worries, the team doctor has something to help him out until then. And so the cycle begins. From a few Lortabs a day it does not take long until the teenager returns from the pharmacy with his first prescription of Oxy. Now just a little push from his beautiful but fragile girlfriend Dori, the girl with the mermaid hair, is all it takes to spiral into a full-blown opioid addiction. Tragedies ensue, small and devastating. Opportunities offer moments of hope but the fight against addiction is rough and ugly and Demon will have to face more than a fair share of grief on his route to recovery.

"My people are dead of trying, or headed that way, addicted as we are to keeping ourselves alive. There's no more blood here to give, just war wounds. Madness. A world of pain, looking to be killed."

In a meta-textual remark, that will make Kingsolver’s literary-minded readers smile, Demon acknowledges Charles Dickens who is probably dead and a foreigner but really understands the struggles of being a child in the foster system. I listened to David Copperfield read by Martin Jarvis before diving into Barbara Kingsolver’s retelling. Jarvis turns this 800-page work, that I am sure can be dry and long at times, into an engaging story. Dickens did not have the plot planned out when he embarked the project and you can tell. There are episodes that seem unnecessary, he tells multiple stories in one big book. But listening to it, having someone turn the page for you, you can appreciate his deeply personal criticism of society’s treatment of poor and orphaned children. Knowing roughly what challenges and adventures our modern-day David Copperfield was going to face helped in getting through the dark and more difficult moments in Demon Copperhead – and there are plenty of those. I was invested form the first page. Kingsolver’s writing packs a punch and she draws you right in. But I did need occasional breaks when Demon’s circumstances got too bleak. Never for too long though, because I couldn’t really stay away from this deeply sarcastic, witty child.

Where David is innocent and naïve, Demon is cynical and distrustful. He is not given the opportunity to see the world through a child’s colourful glasses. From day one, he knows how to watch his back. Barbara Kingsolver has written him perfectly. Demon is ferociously funny, highly intelligent, a harsh critic and yet a scared child at hart, a child who want to be loved. Demon Copperhead follows the model of David Copperfield closely, and yet it is entirely its own story and one that needs to be told. Kingsolver shows us the traps of poverty and addiction convincingly and while she blames the companies that make profit off this epidemic and accuses the governments that stand back and do nothing, she warns all of us not to turn a blind eye to the destitution so many suffer under. Kingsolver finishes her masterpiece brilliantly, her ending is much superior to Dickens’, and the reader is allowed a small glimmer of hope looking into the characters’ future – characters that will stay with you for a while.

"We were storybook orphans on drugs. A big old apple tree stood out in the yard, and that summer we ate wormy apples off the ground. I can still see her, so hungry, dirt on her knees, kneeling on the ground in a dead person's housedress."
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