Demon Copperhead: A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

Hardcover, 2022

Call number




Harper (2022), 560 pages


The teenage son of an Appalachian single mother who dies when he is eleven uses his good looks, wit, and instincts to survive foster care, child labor, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses.

Media reviews

Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, this is the story of an irrepressible boy nobody wants, but readers will love. Damon is the only child of a teenage alcoholic — “an expert at rehab” — in southwest Virginia.... In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of that boy’s
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spirit to illuminate — and singe — the darkest recesses of our country....From the moment Demon starts talking to us, his story is already a boulder rolling down the Appalachian Mountains, faster and faster, stopping for nothing. ...Kingsolver has effectively reignited the moral indignation of the great Victorian novelist to dramatize the horrors of child poverty in the late 20th century.
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3 more
In echoing Dickens, Barbara Kingsolver has written a social justice novel all her own, one only she could write, for our time and for the ages.Master storyteller Kingsolver has given the world a book that will have a ripple effect through the generations...Like all stories that stick with you, this
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one is both universal and decidedly personal. If you’ve lived near the Appalachians, you'll recognize these characters as well as their voice. They may even remind you of family members—those who’ve made it through, made it out, or made it back. If you haven’t, it will touch your heart anyway....That Kingsolver has shone a light on them as only she can, is a leap in understanding the hurting of a forgotten, often misunderstood and ridiculed people. Next time you see such a person, be kind, open your mind, and stop making fun of their accent.
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“Demon Copperhead” reimagines Dickens’s story in a modern-day rural America contending with poverty and opioid addiction... Of course Barbara Kingsolver would retell Dickens. He has always been her ancestor. Like Dickens, she is unblushingly political and works on a sprawling scale, animating
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her pages with the presence of seemingly every creeping thing that has ever crept upon the earth.....Kingsolver’s prose is often splendid....And so, caught between polemic and fairy tale, Kingsolver is stuck with an anticlimax. .
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With its bold reversals of fate and flamboyant cast, this is storytelling on a grand scale – Dickensian, you might say, and Kingsolver does indeed describe Demon Copperhead as a contemporary adaptation of David Copperfield....And what a story it is: acute, impassioned, heartbreakingly evocative,
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told by a narrator who’s a product of multiple failed systems, yes, but also of a deep rural landscape with its own sustaining traditions.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.”

Somewhere in Appalachia, Demon Copperfield was born in a trailer home, to a teenage junkie mother and this was just the beginning. Through his childhood and teens, Demon will have to navigate through many
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minefields, dealing with abuse, homelessness and addiction, to name just a few obstacles thrown in his path. For 500-plus pages, this could be a grind for most readers but Kingsolver is at the top of her game here and she keeps the reader engaged throughout. It sure helps that Demon is a wonderful character, that you find yourself rooting for all along the way, despite his many missteps. Like Dickens, Kingsolver populates her book with colorful characters, with equally colorful names but she keeps everything grounded in a masterful way. Nice to kick off the year with a Best of the Year contender.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Demon Copperhead is an updated, re-imagined version of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, set in southwest Virginia’s Appalachian country. This region is beset with social issues stemming from the decline of both the mining industry and the farm economy, and a rising opioid epidemic as
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painkillers are over-prescribed to treat a variety of ills. Demon is born to a single mother living below the poverty line. Their landlord neighbors are generous in their care for the family, but are often stretched to the limit with their own concerns. Eventually Demon ends up in foster care, and gets by thanks mostly to his own grit and determination.

I loved, loved, loved this book. I haven’t read David Copperfield, so I peeked at a plot summary from time to time to find the parallels. This worked well: I had no idea what was going to happen to these characters, and could simply enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s creative genius. She chose names for her characters that map easily to the original work while being fresh and modern. And her depiction of their environment was masterful. Readers initially become acquainted with the community and the economic challenges they face. Opioids enter the picture as Demon approaches adulthood. We know things are going to get bad, and Kingsolver shows us all the ways in which this is so while also remaining true to the original work by ending with a ray of hope.

This is an absolute masterpiece, sure to be one of my favorite books of 2022.
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LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
Kingsolver walks a tightrope here, not always successfully, as she updates ‘David Copperfield’ and slams it down into the heart of Appalachia for a look at what institutional poverty and disintegrating family structure does to children growing up in that toxic environment.

Her protagonist, who
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quickly picks up the titular nickname, is born to a single mom in one of those clichéd Tennessee enclaves of single-wide trailers, tobacco patches, and up-holler communities where everyone is everyone else’s cousin. Demon’s situation goes from bad to worse when his mother takes up with an abusive partner, then becomes an early casualty in the Opioid Wars, sending him into the uncaring arms of the social services system. Things are unrelentingly grim for most of the book, as Demon goes from one bad foster situation to another, his feet firmly set on a road the reader knows is going nowhere. A series of bad choices blows up what appears to be his one final chance at normalcy, and the decline is accelerated by the drug-fueled atmosphere in which he exists.

If this all sounds miserable and depressing, it’s because that’s precisely what it is. It takes Kingsolver and her protagonist about 500 pages to come to the meat of the argument and to look at just why the term “hillbilly” is one of the few ethnic slurs still considered politically correct, and why so many disparate social structures collided and colluded to create the perfect cauldron for drug-fueled despair.

There is a very slight ray of hope at the end; the only question is whether most readers will hang on to get within sight of it. ‘Demon Copperhead’ may be one of Kingsolver’s most important works, but it is not one of her best.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Modern adaptation of David Copperfield set in Virginia, the storyline follows protagonist Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead for his bright red hair, from birth to around age twenty-one. His life is full of struggles. Growing up in poverty in the 1990s-2000s, he is born to a drug-addicted
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mother, who tries to get clean but relapses. His stepfather is abusive. Luckily his neighbors, the Peggots, are good to him and try to fill in the gaps when his mother goes into rehab. His life is a continuous series of turns of fortune. He meets both good-hearted people and nefarious but charismatic scoundrels.

Demon tells his story in first person, looking back on his youthful years, using wry wit and colorful language. The plot is fueled by battles with addictions, the pitfalls of foster care, the hardships of poverty, and indictments of corporate greed that has taken a large toll on the Appalachian region (coal, tobacco, Big Pharma). It is also a story of typical teenage coming-of-age dilemmas, friendships, and a “found family” that provides an uplifting interlude.

There are many admirable aspects. Demon is a sympathetic character, and he takes us on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt deeply for this child. The primary drawback is that occasionally the message gets a little too obvious and over-explained, but this is the exception. In this book the author has taken a large step forward in avoiding the soapbox. Perhaps it is partially due to the use of a story that parallels one we know well, David Copperfield. It is not absolutely necessary to have read Dickens’s classic, but I think it adds to the enjoyment. This is an impressive work.
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LibraryThing member gbill
“For the kids who wake up hungry in those dark places every day, who’ve lost their families to poverty and pain pills, whose caseworkers keep losing their files, who feel invisible, or wish they were: this book is for you.” – Barbara Kingsolver

An empathetic work that shifted my perspective
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to people in Lee County, Virginia, who are too often ignored or stereotyped, and also gave me a taste for the shameful history of coal mining companies there (e.g. the Battle of Blair Mountain). Kingsolver’s book starts strong and got me fully invested in the main character, an impoverished boy turned over to the Dept. of Social Services when his substance abusing mother overdoses. Some of her strongest and most pointed writing are directed at Purdue Pharma and the truly insidious ways they pushed the country into the opioid crisis. There are also the obvious parallels to Dickens’ book and its characters, many of whom are directly mapped.

Full disclosure though, it’s always hard for me to love stories involving addiction, and this one was no exception, even if it had other layers. On top of that, the bloated text began to feel melodramatic as it went from one episode to the next in a dark coming-of-age tale, one that often felt like misery porn. Kingsolver is a talented writer who can touch on emotions and paint a picture, but sometimes the narration from the main character felt truer to her rather than the young man. I’m not sure the ending was believable either, though maybe it was necessary to balance out how desolate and sad the story was.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
Inspired by Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, the story line of an orphaned young boy is moved to the 1990's and located in southwestern Virginia in Appalachia. Narrated in the first person by Damon Fields, aka Demon Copperhead, about his early life with a single mother who was raised in foster
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care and after her death, his time in the foster care system both formally and informally.

There are a lot of social justice issues covered in the 546 pages,including poverty, substance abuse, corporate abuse, regional & societal prejudice. And most of all, the treatment of vulnerable children by adults who think more of their convenience or their ability to exploit the child rather than focusing on the welfare of the child.

At times it is hard to read as one bad choice is made after another. But the book ultimately ends with some insights and the possibility of redemption. It seems that Kingsolver has done her research and has adapted her writing style to accommodate the character she has created in Demon Copperfield.
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
An amazing book both on audio and hard copy. Barbara Kingsolver deserved winning the Pulitzer Prize for this!
LibraryThing member Jennifer_Long
An excellent book that hits so many topics with nuance and care. The voice of Demon speaks for children of addicted parents, foster kids, opioid addicts, and rural Appalachian people. Barbara Kingsolver nails creating a story with social impact without being preachy. She goes right to the line, but
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doesn't cross it. A powerful story!
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LibraryThing member carolfoisset
Wowza - what a read! Heart wrenching at times, but I loved it. There were parts when I had to put it down and take a breather and other parts when I couldn't put it down because I had to know what would happen. These characters are still living in my head.
I loved Kingsolver's Bean Trees as well as
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all her non-fiction essays books, but this is my new favorite. It's a must read.
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LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
I have enjoyed and admired several of Kingsolver's previous books. And I am an unabashed devotee of that "Charles Dickens, one seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass," in the words of
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the long-suffering, smart-and foul-mouthed, eponymous narrator Demon Copperhead. My copy of David Copperfield runs 946 pages, and David does reveal whether he turns out to be the hero of his own story; Kingsolver runs 400 pages less, and doesn't quite get us to Demon's 18th birthday. But there's hope for him.

Kingsolver turns 19th century London slums, abusive boarding schools, a coastal fishing village, and appalling neglect of unattached kids into 20th century drug-poisoned Appalachian hollers, filthy and exploitive cattle ranches, and appalling neglect of unattached kids. There are also hard-working, generous, decent people who do the best they can. The first third especially is - believe it or not - fun, as you connect David with Demon, Steerforth with Fast Forward, Agnes with Angus, Peggots and Peggottys. Other pairings are more perfunctory - those two great Dickensians Micawber and Heep (McCobb and Pyles, respectively) barely appear, and have little to do of much importance. Once the story gets going, under the dreadful menace of the opioid catastrophe, it actually gains steam as Kingsolver tugs the reins out of Dickens's fists and lets her characters in their new world fight their way through. There's a long lull in the middle, where Demon's growth as a rising junior varsity football star and horny adolescent boy becomes a bit of a slog. But as the drug problems kick in, the stakes get tougher... and a lot uglier. I struggled at times with the teenaged girls in Demon's orbit - Angus, Emmy, Dora, Rose are all foul-mouthed, smart-assed, swaggering, sexed-up, drug-junked punks, with little to distinguish among them. And god help us, the eldest Miss Larkins turns out to be a world-class expert in phone sex. Which is just plain weird.

But Demon is a boy you gotta love, and admire, and feel sorry for, and root for. Along with all the other suffering folks in that hilly corner of Virginia. Some readers may squirm uncomfortably with this volume of trailer trash, overdoses, single teenaged moms (in prison, no less), gun-toting drug dealers, and everyone with bad teeth, crapped out cars, shit schools, no jobs, no future. I gave up trying to keep track of the entangled family trees, fostered / adopted / shipped out kids and dead or missing parents. I hung in there with Demon, though, and wanted to see him through, thanks to his wry, sharp, vivid voice that can rise into poetry without sounding like it (Steinbeck was good at that too!). Let's say 3.5 stars, for the pages and lines and paragraphs Kingsolver can sculpt with a chainsaw and a scalpel.
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LibraryThing member susan0316
As soon as I read that Barbara Kingsolver had a new book coming out after four long years of waiting, I pre-ordered it from Amazon so that I'd have my copy on publication day. My copy arrived mid-afternoon and I started reading it within the hour. It's a long book and needed to be read slowly so
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that the reader could totally absorb all of the beautiful writing so it took me a couple of days to finish but reading it was my most important task each day. When I closed the book at the end, I felt like I'd been on a journey of understanding of the main character and the changes in his life. It's been over a month since I finished Demon Copperhead and I am still thinking about the main character and the journey in his life.

This novel is set in the mountains of southern Appalachia and starts when Damon is born. Born to a single teenage drug addicted mother in a single wide trailer he starts out with the cards stacked against him. As a kid, none of this really matters to him - he has friends and the great outdoors to explore. Sure he had to be a parent to his mom and make sure that she got to work each day but life was still fulfilling for him. He didn't have a lot of clothes and he was bullied at school but he had a strong sense for survival and did the best he could do. After his mother dies of an overdose, he finds himself in foster care at 11 years old. The author goes into great detail about the failings of the foster care system. Many of the foster parents were only concerned with getting a monthly check for being a foster parent and didn't care for the foster children. Demon ended up doing almost slave labor on a farm, working in a trash dump that fronted for a meth lab and trying to survive on his own despite the cruelness of the foster parents. When he finally got placed in a wonderful home, he couldn't relax enough to enjoy it but he soon became a star player on the football team and became popular overnight. When a serious injury on the field starts him on the path to opioid addiction, his life begins to move into a fast downward spiral. Will he be able to save himself from the drug addicted world that he's become part of and does anyone in his life really care?

The author went into a lot of description about the opioid crisis in rural southern areas and the part that the big pharmaceutical companies played in introducing Oxycontin - in fact pushing this drug - into the hands of people of all ages by promising that it wasn't addictive and could cure whatever their problem was.
Demon was a wonderful main character. He knew right from the beginning of his life that he wouldn't have many chances to succeed in life and he approached some of the bad things that happened in his life as situations that couldn't be avoided and tried to make the best of everything by keeping his expectations for his future low. This epic story of his life is full of depressing situations - foster care, child labor, drug addiction but Demon is a resilient young man who goes through it all and still has hopes for a happier future. The writing is beautiful and despite the depressing situations, the major feeling is one of hope for the future. This book will definitely be in my top ten books of the year and is one of the few books that I'm sure I'll re-read in the future.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
As usual, Kingsolver has tucked a lot of social commentary into a very engaging story, and just barely avoided the level of preachiness that makes me twitch. Her subject this time is the opioid crisis, particularly in rural working class communities with few resources where people are subject to
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exploitation on so many levels, and under-served by society's supposed "safety nets". The author set herself the task of "reinvent{ing} David Copperfield chapter by chapter to fit the dimensions of my own place and time." And a marvelous job she's done. The names alone bring Dickens to mind--the main character Damon Fields, a/k/a Demon Copperhead; his best friends "Angus", Tommy, and Maggot; his grandmother, Betsey Woodall; the Peggot family; the McCobbs and my personal favorite, "U-Haul" Pyles. The story of orphaned Demon and the trials of his life in Lee County, Virginia, parallels that of the Dickensian David, but it is not necessary in the least that the reader be familiar with the original. Having read [Copperfield] several times, I noted its influence subliminally, for the most part, while reading this modern version. And even with the foreknowledge of how it all would probably come out, I confess to having teared up a little at the end. And that doesn't happen to me very often.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This is an updated pastiche of David Copperfield.

But unlike David Copperfield the lows were much lower; it tore my heart out several times.

Orphan Demon Copperhead enters the foster system at an early age. He experiences the worst of the system. Even in finally what seems to be the perfect
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placement, an untreated injury causes him to spiral into drugs to relieve the pain. His so-called perfect foster-father is lost to his own demons. Addicted and alone, Demon drops out of high school.

Brilliantly written, it’s a memorable indictment of America’s foster system. It’s also a sympathetic look at addiction, the person who became the addict and how they became what they are.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s also a wonderful passage of the difference between a city person and one who lives in the country. The latter is characterised as mistrusting the government and is willing to fight for his rights – including defending the right to legally making corn whiskey at the point of a gun.

This one will be on many awards list, and will well deserve all it wins.
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LibraryThing member mdoris
This book looks at the pure evil of drugs introduced to communities, to people, to individuals, to families, the wreckage that is caused by the pharmaceutical companies for profit. Kingsolver does an amazing job showing this. Her characters come alive as the story unfolds.

In the past several years
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there have been more OD deaths in British Columbia than there have been COVID deaths.

While this books mirrors Dickens' David Copperfield, for me the pull of the book is about the opportunity of birth and what our culture is allowing to happen to the huge detriment of children and their health. Have we made any progress since Dickens time?
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LibraryThing member erinclark
Seriously one of Kingsolvers best. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Be forewarned. The language of Demon Copperhead is sandpaper rough. There is no romantic words to describe the life of Damon, aka Demon Copperhead. His life is harsh, cruel, and ugly. Like a horrible tasting medicine or a poison akin to chemotherapy, I had to sip the chapters in small increments.
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Big gulps of heartbreak in paragraph form would surely kill me. And believe me, there were many moments where my eyes couldn't take in the sentences of pain. Demon is a child with a life from hell, yet completely believable and all too common. Born to a mother addicted to drugs, bounced around from place to place, he finally ends up with a grandmother who changes his life. She doesn't approve of men living in her house, but she knows someone who will not only take him in, but make him a star. A football star, that is. Bad luck seems to follow Demon wherever he goes. If his life isn't transient and temporary, it is translucent and tenuous. There is never a moment when I can breathe easy for a boy in the poverty stricken, opioid laden rural south.
I am not proud of the way I minced gingerly through the early chapters of Demon Copperhead as if I were on a sharp rock beach in baby-tender bare feet. But, like a hard won marathon, I would gladly read it again and again.
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LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
A modern retelling of David Copperfield that will haunt the reader with its rawness and humanity.
LibraryThing member bookczuk
Barbara Kingsolver doesn't disappoint. A troubling, but also an optimistic storyline, set in troubling times, that hopefully can be optimistic, rooted in one of the demons of our time (drug addiction). David Copperfield revisited.
LibraryThing member pdebolt
With acknowledgement to Dickens' David Copperfield, this also is a coming-of-age story of a boy nicknamed Demon Copperhead born in the moutains of southern Appalachia. His real name is Damon, and he grows up in a rural, impoverished setting with a young unmarried mother struggling with substance
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abuse and a Melungeon dead father. His best friend, Maggot, lives nearby, and life is relatively good until his mother marries a man named Stoner, a cruel bully who resents Demon's position in their small family. Demon eventually lands in foster care when his mother dies, and works at jobs that can only be described as child slave labor. Then, as now, the foster care system is horribly broken with overburdened, underpaid social workers.

Through the connections of his paternal grandmother, he eventually lives in a good home with advantages previously unknown to him. His life is finally looking up until an injury on the football field where he has been a hero derails him once again. Demon's struggles and eventual descent into the rampant opiod addiction are difficult to read since these are ills that continue to haunt us.

The problems of people born into poverty and the alcohol/substance abuse that often follow have the relevance now as they did in Dickens' time. Barbara Kingsolver deftly and vividly brings the characters and issues to life in this novel.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Amazing book. Love her people and situations. N sugarcoating
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Described as a modern retelling of the David Copperfield story, this is grim, at times depressing, and filled with characters with unusual names in terrible situations. I don't remember much of the Copperfield story but the modern day Appalachia is presented as just as depressing as Victorian
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Damon, the main character, was born to a teenage mother who dies young due to addiction leaving Damon to enter the foster care system which is presented in a very negative way. Damon soon becomes known as Demon Copperhead due to his red hair. The neighbors, the Piggots, have always acted as a sort of pseudo family to Damon who is best friends with their grandson Maggot. Damon is able to work out of a terrible situation due to his outstanding football skills and the attention of some teachers; however, it seems he is doomed from the beginning as one terrible thing after another occurs: football injuries, girlfriend who is totally addicted stealing her disabled father's meds, and simply being surrounded by people who seem to have no way out of the rural Appalachia area. Even the Piggot's daughter, June, seems drawn back to the old town even after getting a degree and working as a physician's assistant. The people are either doomed to remain where they are or are treated as traitors if they leave.

This is a very depressing book, but one that is believable -- generations of rural poverty are really no different than urban poverty - lack of family support, poor schools, few employment opportunities, and the easy access to drugs of some kind, in this case oxycontin which is handed out so easily.
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LibraryThing member jnmegan
Only the most talented and intrepid novelist would dare to take on Charles Dickens and one of his most famous masterpieces. That Barbara Kingsolver is such an author is apparent with her outstanding rendering of Dickens’ David Copperfield. It may not be necessary to have read the original to
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enjoy Demon Copperhead but reading these two books in succession is extremely rewarding. Whereas Dickens places his unlucky David in Victorian England, Kingsolver has her Demon emerge from Appalachia in the early 2000s. Both narrators experience devastating hardship right from birth and are helped or hindered by a remarkable cast of fully fleshed and memorable secondary characters. Kingsolver embraces the classic bildungsroman theme, changing the names and circumstances for a fresh and relevant reinvention. Both books are sprawling, enthralling, and even repulsive at times. Demon Copperhead, however, is not merely a copy of David Copperfield—the fraught journey of Kingsolver’s hero provides a reminder that our societal ills and inequalities have not changed all that much.

Thanks to the author, Harper and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Kingsolver's latest novel is difficult to read, mainly because it is so well written and the characters so believable. Told in the first person, adding to the immediacy, the narration covers many complex issues, such as opioid and alcohol addiction, poverty, social services, adolescence, and abuse.
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Demon faces insurmountable odds from his early childhood, and at times the downward spiral seems relentless during his "coming of age." A few positive relationships help Demon navigate repeated losses, disappointments, and betrayals, and keep the reader from feeling completely hopeless. It also helps that Demon's language sounds authentic and at times lyrical.
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LibraryThing member ELISE846
The writing was excellent, however, I did not care for the storyline.
LibraryThing member andsoitgoes
I highly recommend the audio version of this novel. The narrator, Charlie Thurston, is fantastic. A modern take on David Copperfield set in the 1990s Virginia.




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