Book of the Month: Demon Copperhead (2022)
by Barbara Kingsolver
“In ‘Demon Copperhead,’ Barbara Kingsolver offers a close retelling of Charles Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield,’ which is either a baffling choice or an ingenious maneuver from a novelist who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and selected for Oprah’s Book Club and regularly — inevitably, even — appears on the best-seller list of this newspaper, all while reaping a surprising quantity of stinging pans from critics.
“Kingsolver’s resurrection of Dickens’s most sentimental (though cherished by many, including me) novel might seem a bit strange — as if Harry Styles had released a song-for-song remake of the original cast recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific.’
“But then, from another angle: Of course Barbara Kingsolver would retell Dickens. He has always been her ancestor. Like Dickens, she is unblushingly political and works on a sprawling scale, animating her pages with the presence of seemingly every creeping thing that has ever crept upon the earth. Exhuming him is a way for her to make a claim of inheritance explicit at a time when teeming, boisterous, activist novels are unfashionable. It is an argument that this loss of prestige is unwarranted, impermanent, even benighted, and it is a rebuttal of the notion that ideologues can’t make great novelists, or that novels are no longer plausible vehicles for social change.”
Young, Molly. “Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver” The New York Times. October 28, 2022.
“First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.
“On any other day they’d have seen her outside on the deck of her trailer home, good neighbors taking notice, pestering the tit of trouble as they will. All through the dog-breath air of late summer and fall, cast an eye up the mountain and there she’d be, little bleach-blonde smoking her Pall Malls, hanging on that railing like she’s captain of her ship up there and now might be the hour it’s going down. This is an eighteen-year-old girl we’re discussing, all on her own and as pregnant as it gets. The day she failed to show, it fell to Nance Peggot to go bang on the door, barge inside, and find her passed out on the bathroom floor with her junk all over the place and me already coming out. A slick fish-colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life.”
“So it was not usual for Mrs. Peggot to keep my born name in the mix after others had moved on from it. It’s Damon. Last name of Fields, same as Mom’s. At the time of filling in the hospital forms after my action-packed birth, she evidently had her reasons for not tagging me to my dad. From what I know now, there’s no question, but looking like him was something I had to grow into, along with getting hair. And in those days, with her looks still being the main item in Mom’s plus column and the words “bad choice” yet to join her vocab, maybe there were other candidates. None on hand to gentleman up and sign over his name. Or drive her home from the hospital. That job, like most gentleman-up stuff in Mom’s life, fell to Mr. Peg. Was he happy about it or not, another story.”