A modern-day tale of poverty, child abandonment and addiction

A story about poverty and the opioid crisis in the heart of Appalachian country. Picture: Pexels

A story about poverty and the opioid crisis in the heart of Appalachian country. Picture: Pexels

Published Dec 5, 2022


Demon Copperhead

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Publisher: Jonathan Ball

Review: Lindsay Slogrove

This is a fascinating insight into the lives of “hillbilly rednecks”, a term hated by the folk who people this story.

Told by a boy named Demon Copperhead, (yes, it is a nod to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield) it’s a modern-day story of poverty, child abandonment and the opioid crisis in the heart of Appalachian country.

Demon Copperhead is left an orphan at 11 by his mom’s death after a life of trying and mostly failing to beat addiction in a place where no one has the money or facility to provide proper care for anyone.

Demon has seen addiction up close, learning how to clean up and care for his mom. His brute of a stepfather has also taught him valuable lessons: how to suck up injury, pain, punishment and violence and how to bottle up and use the fury that comes to those unable to fight back.

He seeks refuge of a kind with his (slightly better off) neighbours who are raising yet another of their grandchildren, the odd Maggot, because their daughter is in prison.

Sucked into a vicious foster care system in which “care” is a very loose term and often only done for the welfare cheques, Demon proves to be resourceful and smart, mainly in a bid to feed his continual hunger. One of the constants in his young life, no matter which foster “family” he finds himself in, is limited food. He finds ways to fill a few holes, but there is never enough. Even in the “country”, where food can be grown, most people in the area scrape by and need all the natural resources to feed themselves.

He and his foster friends must learn to survive – many in cruel underworlds – in a place with few mercies.

His few visits to cities instil in him a dread of the concrete jungle. He makes the astute observation that poverty and hunger, while crippling in any place, is more devastating where people are measured in money and material things. There are only dumpsters to dig in or hide behind when you’re down and out in the city. In the country, he observes, you can always “pick an apple” or take shelter in a dry(ish) barn.

Kingsolver illustrates the harshness of life in areas of economic hopelessness, where systems and people fail vulnerable children who desperately need to be protected. Where even adults fall victim to desperation and where that takes them, and where sometimes it is only a sense of community that holds some souls together.

The subject matter is bleak, but Kingsolver’s writing is beautiful and she delivers an enthralling tale of the triumph of hope and persistence over despair.