Damen Fields was born with many disadvantages. His father died before he was born. His single mother raised him in poverty before marrying an abusive husband before she died. These events thrust young Damen into the social services system, where he suffered abuse at the hands of a series of foster parents.
Damen took the last name of his dead father, "Copperhead," in part because of his flaming red hair. He also embraced the nickname "Demon" - a nod to his fiery personality.
Barbara Kingsolver's 2023 novel "Demon Copperhead" tells the story of this boy as he grows to manhood. Kingsolver drew inspiration and many plot elements from Charles Dickens's "David Copperfield."
Demon's life parallels the life of Dickens's Copperfield in many ways. In addition to the single mother, abusive stepfather, and being orphaned at a young age, Demon faces torment at the hands of the unscrupulous U-Haul Pyles (a modern version of Uriah Heep), receives comfort from the kindly elderly Mrs. Peggot (Kingsolver's version of Mrs. Peggotty), and falls for the beautiful but irresponsible Dori (an incarnation of Dora Spenlow).
Despite borrowing many characters and story elements from Dickens, "Demon Copperhead" is Kingsolver's story. The action mostly takes place in the Appalachian region of southwest Virginia and reflects the culture and poverty of that area.
The book has many themes - the effect of expectations on motivation, the caste system in America, stereotypes of the Appalachians, hero worship, and the roles of the education system and health care system in poor communities.
Two themes dominate the novel - each in a different part. The first part reveals the difficulties - and sometimes horrors - of growing up in the foster care system. At age 11, Demon moves from home to home, and each "caregiver" exploits him in some way. One keeps all his foster children out of school so that they can work his tobacco farm; another puts him to work in a meth lab, then steal his earnings. Even the kindest of his foster parents grooms him for the high school football team that he coaches.
The second part of the novel focuses on the dangers of drug abuse. Drugs are freely available among high school students, and doctors frequently prescribe addictive painkillers to their patients. Demon's addiction begins with opioids (drugs that contributed to his mother's death) before escalating to harder narcotics. When asked if a friend is taking drugs, Demon responds, "I don't know a single person my age that's not taking pills."
"Demon Copperfield" could have been a clever marketing ploy, drawing in readers already familiar with Charles Dickens's classic story. But it is more than that.
Ms. Kingsolver's novel shared the 2023 Pulitzer Prize with Hernan Diaz's "Trust," a testament to its appeal beyond being a tribute to the Dickens classic.
The overarching theme of the book matches that of "David Copperfield." "Demon Copperhead" addresses the enormous challenges of growing up in institutional poverty and the hope of overcoming those challenges to become something more than what you were born to.