Read This Next: Jon Bull
Each year, I set a goal to read whatever novel has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, regardless of who the author is or the subject matter. Last year, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” won the prestigious award (tying with “Trust” by Hernan Diaz) and I told myself I had to read it, despite not being a big fan of her work in the past. Sure, she wrote one of my wife’s favorite books, “The Poisonwood Bible,” and is certainly a talented and prolific writer, but there were always just too many other good authors to read before her. She had to wait until I got the bigger, better authors out of the way first. That’s what I had told myself anyway.
I’ve changed my mind after reading “Demon Copperhead.”
Set in the 1990s Appalachia, this novel tells the coming-of-age of an orphan named Damon Fields, his struggles with poverty and opioids, and his ultimate triumph over them. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, on the edge of the Appalachia and opioid crisis, this book had a high bar to clear for authenticity and believability. Kingsolver also takes her inspiration from Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” transplanting that narrative to the contemporary American South. Mimicking Dickens usually does not end well for authors, either. Not to mention that Kingsolver, a woman in her sixties, also tells this story of a teenage boy in first person. This had to be bad, right?
On the contrary, “Demon Copperhead” might be the single best work of fiction so far that illustrates what it means to be poor, addicted, and from the middle of nowhere. Kingsolver gets so much right with this book – the voice, the characters, the plotting, the culture, the pride, and the pain – of rural America. Plenty of us know someone or have had struggles with substances ourselves, or had family tragedy, but too often these struggles are exploited in fiction. I was expecting that here too, but Kingsolver doesn’t take the bait. Instead, she shows a central character who is flawed and doesn’t always make the right decisions, sure, but is also inspiring through his commitment to sobriety, art, creativity, and resilience. Above all, Damon is resilient.
We need more books like this, giving us main characters who practice resilience. The world is a tough place and it is too easy to complain about how tough it is. Damon, though, almost never complains even though much of his life is objectively terrible. Instead, he keeps trying to solve his problems, to get better, to not dwell on the evil in his life, but instead triumph over it. And he does triumph, too. This book has a happy, upbeat ending, even if it takes nearly 500 pages to get there.
After reading “Demon Copperhead,” I will be sure to never make the same mistake again of thinking Kingsolver isn’t an important writer. She has written a book that made me feel better about the world. Hopeful, even. It’s been months since I read the book and I still can’t help but feel good when looking at the book, remembering it.