I love a good character driven novel with writing that has me emotional invested, ripping at my heartstrings and leaving me wanting more. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is just that book. Set in the Appalachians and following characters of a small mining town in Virginia that is devastated by the rise of Oxycontin, I was drawn in and fascinated with how poverty and this little pill destroyed families. After finishing, I went to the library and picked up a copy of Dopesick by Beth Macy. Having read Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, I had some background into the rise of Oxycontin, but reading an, albeit fictional, but very much realistic depiction of people affected by opioid addiction was sobering.
Set in southern Appalachia, Demon Copperhead is a young boy trying to live to see the next day. Born to a teenage single mother, never having met his father who passed away before he was born. Demon struggles through foster care, the opioid epidemic that sweeps the area, affecting almost everyone he knows, abject poverty, failing school systems, toxic relationships, and loss after loss. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is a story of a young boy who survives barely survives generational poverty, trauma, abuse, and addiction.
I am a sucker for character driven novels, especially those with a flawed main protagonist that you cannot help but root for. Demon Copperhead reminded me of Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (I loved that book-click the title link to read my 5-star review) in the sense that his mother is fighting addiction and cannot care for him properly, so he ventures out on his own and learns to rely on himself. I wanted so badly to reach through the pages and help Demon. He is such an endearing character who was dealt a tough hand. But a hand that many in the US are dealt.
Much of the story focuses on the rise in oxycontin abuse in the Appalachian area and the ways some doctors contributed to the epidemic. Demon finds himself unintentionally hooked on opioids after he battles a football injury. Thus begins his downward spiral. It is very easy to understand how so many people have fallen victim to this horrible drug. When a doctor prescribes you something and it helps take the horrible pain away, that can’t be wrong. It’s not like buying drugs off the street. But its highly addictive properties do not discriminate and rip apart lives and families.
Demon Copperhead is an emotional roller coaster. Be sure and buckle up and keep some tissues handy because you will feel all the emotions with this one. I took my time with it as well and settled in, knowing it would take some time to get through this story. I feel that way with Barbara Kingsolver’s books, they are always a journey to a ‘new to me’ area of the world. This is probably my all-time favorite of hers so far.
Bonus points if you understand the significance of this book at the ocean!
(Location: Pensacola Beach, Florida)
“The wonder is that you could start life with nothing, end with nothing, and lose so much in between.”
"There's this thing that happens, let's say at school where a bunch of guys are in the bathroom, at the urinal, laughing about some dork that made an anus out of himself in gym. You're all basically nice guys, right? You know right from wrong, and would not in a million years be brutal to the poor guy's face. And then it happens: the dork was in the shitter. He comes out of the stall with this look. He heard everything. And you realize you're not really that nice of a guy. That is what I would say if I could, to all smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes: We are right here in the stall. We can actually hear you."