What “Demon Copperhead” Gets Right About Appalachia

What “Demon Copperhead” Gets Right About Appalachia

What Demon Copperhead Gets Right About Appalachia

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel shows the reality of the opioid and foster care crises in the region without resorting to stale stereotypes.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communication and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.

Barbara Kingsolver dedicates her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Demon Copperhead to survivors of the opioid crisis and foster care. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the book is dedicated to me: I am an Appalachian who was put in foster care thanks to, in part, my father’s opioid addiction.

Reading the novel, I felt vindicated and relieved that the author voiced all the things I want to explain to people who don’t understand where I come from. Transforming Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield and its explorations of institutional poverty in Victorian England into a saga set in the beginning days of Appalachia’s opioid epidemic, Kingsolver compassionately shows how exploitative industries—like logging and coal mining, big-box retailers like Walmart, and pharmaceutical companies like Purdue—have taken advantage of Appalachia for the sake of profit. The resulting opioid epidemic and poverty in the region have led to a child welfare crisis: Kentucky, my home state, had 8,863 youth in care in 2022, up 27 percent from 2012.

In the novel, the main character, Demon, is put into foster care because of his mother’s addiction. His foster parents expect him to “pay his way”—either using his foster care stipend as family income or forcing him to work on farms and junkyards. In one house, he suffers from nicotine poisoning when he is forced to harvest tobacco crops. In another, a barely fed Demon is made to sleep on an undersized air mattress in a dirty laundry room.

Ultimately, Demon suffers from addiction himself. In the hopes of finding community and career success, Demon throws himself into high school football. When he injures his knee, his denial-ridden coach and pill-pushing doctor prescribe him opioids. His entire friend group begins taking drugs as well—“ganking” pills off of cancer-riddled relatives or becoming consumed by nightlife culture. Kingsolver discusses not only the myriad ways people become addicted to opioids but also what opioids can do to a person—from constipation to prostitution.

Kingsolver gives Demon a rich and relatable life, and by doing so, she gives readers the tools to at least begin to imagine what it’s like to be deeply affected by the crisis of public welfare in Appalachia. Demon’s multidimensional narration isn’t simply a maudlin recitation of all the pain he’s been through, but is punctuated by complex thought, humor, love, and passion. For instance, Demon is infatuated with the ocean (even if he’s never seen it), and he processes his feelings through making comics. Ultimately, Kingsolver makes sure that Demon’s character isn’t just a train wreck intended to indulge readers’ voyeurism.

There is plenty of pain in Demon Copperhead that could have easily been sensationalized. But the novel’s humor defies the gravity of Demon’s bleak circumstances. In part, the humor Kingsolver infuses into Demon’s first-person narration is an assertion of his indomitable spirit—it’s the buoyancy of a boy who was promised that he’d never drown, due to superstitions about babies born en caul. From the very start, in his “baggie birth,” Demon’s personal wit and the comedic culture of Appalachia are intertwined. Demon was born “a slick fish-colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because [he was] still in the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life.”

These unlucky beginnings are the start of an unlucky Appalachian life. Demon laments that “God made us the butt of the joke universe,” but this is a situation both Demon and Appalachian people at large contend with through humor of our own. When Old Man Peggot instructs Demon that “a man can get used to about anything, except hanging by the neck,” I remember my Grandad’s classic answer to a howdy-do: “Well, I ain’t dead. Yet!”

That’s also part of the reason, I think, Kingsolver emphasizes the colorful nicknames we rednecks end up calling each other: They’re life-affirming. Hottail Cox, Rat Hole, Cow Pen, and Snotty Nose are some nicknames from my family and friends. Kingsolver similarly bestows goofy nicknames on her characters, such as Fast Forward and Maggot. We may be a gaggle of people largely invisible to the outside world, but our nicknames assert that we are someone to our community, even if we—and our names—don’t make much sense to anyone but ourselves.

It was a treat to read a book steeped in the culture and the social issues of the home both Kingsolver and I share, simply because adequate representation of Appalachian people is hard to come by. Appalachian people are portrayed as being crazy, stupid, and dangerous. Many of the impressions outsiders have about Appalachia are based on shock-value news stories or jokes like the Duct Tape Bandit and Diamond Dave’s Ninja School, movies like Deliverance and TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies.

Being the “dog of America,” as Kingsolver puts it, has real consequences: Appalachian communities have been continually exploited and discriminated against. Once, while I was meeting a board member for one of my scholarships, he told me an unfunny joke about incest in eastern Kentucky. It was frightening to know that I could have been denied a scholarship I desperately needed just because he has negative views about the Appalachian end of the state.

Dickens didn’t write David Copperfield with Victorian England’s most underprivileged as the audience in mind; they probably couldn’t afford to buy the novel, even if they were literate and had enough free time to read it. Similarly, while Kingsolver is committed to bringing justice to survivors of the opioid crisis and foster care, I don’t think we’re the intended audience.

The wisdom of the book isn’t meant for me. Many of the realities Kingsolver lays bare are ones I’ve already lived through. Although I was adopted as a toddler and have never had a drug problem myself, my siblings, friends, and I were all put into foster care because of our parents’ addictions. I’ve seen people die from overdosing. And plenty of my family members were left dead or injured by the effects of coal mining. Demon Copperhead isn’t really meant to be revelatory to people like me. Instead, its power lies in Kingsolver’s impressive ability to craft Demon’s realistic interior and share it with readers who wouldn’t otherwise have his firsthand experience.

My favorite part of the book is when Demon muses, at his biological mother’s funeral, that people tend to withhold sympathy from those who are struggling in an attempt to build “a wall to keep out the bad luck.” It can be difficult for people to recognize that their socioeconomic comfort is basically just a product of “luck”—the cards they were dealt at birth. Instead of acknowledging that the house always wins and that the game is always rigged, they imagine that they’re winning the game of life by their own virtue and skill, or at least that the difference between winners and losers is fundamental and justifiable.

Demon Copperhead allows readers to see a side of the wall they otherwise might not. More than that, it urges readers to tear down that wall, to stop “building the wall with [themselves] still on the lucky side.” For 550 wild and wonderful pages, Demon’s western Virginian reality is your reality.

Demon Copperhead isn’t necessarily a perfect account of foster care, Appalachian history, and the opioid epidemic. The book could be twice as long and still lack all the nuances of a messy mountaineer life. However, if you’re not from this neck of the woods, I think Demon Copperhead might be able to teach you a thing or two.

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