I wrote about Southwest Virginia earlier this year after several trips to this beautiful part of the state. It is a favorite spot of mine, and I count several natives as good friends. This region has been particularly ravaged by the opioid epidemic, especially Lee County, the setting for Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel. She faces the epidemic head on. Demon Copperhead, a modern-day David Copperfield, tells his life story, one tinged by abuse and addiction from the beginning. Ron Charles, reviewing the book in The Washington Post, called it “hilarious and heartbreaking.” Having just finished the book and still reeling from its go-for-broke realism, I’m wondering how I missed the hilarity.
In fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to read the book at all after Kingsolver’s early graphic depiction of domestic violence that bordered on torture. Children and the trauma visited upon them through material and spiritual poverty are at the heart of Kingsolver’s story, whether they are raised by their own parents, grandparents or, like Demon, foster families who often do not have the purest of motives for taking in children and a system that doesn’t have the energy to support them. The stories are sad, violent, tragic, and many of these children don’t survive past young adulthood, victims of neglect, violence, and drug use. I worried that Kingsolver was in danger of using her characters for political ends that made them more stereotype than reality. But she held them up with respect and compassion, even those who might be deemed antagonists. I do think, however, that there is a middle ground that isn’t part of Demon’s story that I know from being on site: the middle ground where families and communities are working against the tide, opening businesses, obtaining grants, creating opportunities.
Demon, born as Damon but quickly nicknamed as most characters in the book are, narrates the story. The son of a teenage mother and deceased father, Demon is Melungeon, an ethnic mix of European, Native American and African descent found in the isolated region of the Cumberland Gap, that includes Lee County. His mother is an addict who is in and out of rehab. Demon is forced to grow up quickly as he cares for her and then learns to navigate the sometimes downright dangerous foster care world.
From an early age, he is able to express his self-awareness of the reality of his own situation and how the world perceives his community. They are hillbillies, objects of ridicule, not respect. Yet, despite his awareness, he is unable to extricate himself from this life that has taken so many of his people. There are bright spots in the often dark journey including Demon’s talent as a graphic artist that, early on, offers a psychic escape, and later, a physical one. This ability allows him to see into others, their motivations, their passions, their own demons as well as he sees his own.
Kingsolver’s voice shows up now and then, mostly in the character of Aunt June, a nurse who adopted her niece and moved to the big city. Early on, she returns to the mountains to attempt to save her people from the drug companies represented by Kent, the slick opioid salesman with his brochures and reassurances. This political angle provides some outlet for the anger that builds as you listen to Demon tell his story in his matter-of-fact way. Kingsolver, who has family ties to the area and until September operated a restaurant just up the road from Lee County, acknowledges Dr. Art Van Zee, one of the leaders who pushed back against big pharma. He, along with others, sounded the alarm about the crisis but were largely ignored. I haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, but it is now at the top of my list.
I may also dive into David Copperfield. I am sure I read it at some point but don’t have much memory of the book although Kingsolver stirred a few as Dickens inspired her plot, characters as well as social activism. The treatment of children in both books is horrifying but the more so as Kingsolver is describing recent history.