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Demon Copperhead makes a great book club pick because it draws on current events in Appalachia. It also packs a great story, drawn from one of the most famous novels in English. Finally, it’s written by someone who lives in the area and knows it in intimate detail.
Demon Copperhead is an updated version Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield set in southwest Virginia. Dickens’ purpose was to show what life was like for orphans in Victorian England. Kingsolver sets Demon Copperhead in Appalachia, the mountains in the eastern United States, to highlight the similarity between Victorian England and this region. As a resident of this area, Kingsolver knows it intimately.
Demon Copperhead is an Oprah Book Club pick for October, 2022, which means there are plenty of copies around. Many people are familiar with this topic already because of book/video tie-ins such as Hillbilly Elegy and Dopesick.
Note: The text link for David Copperfield takes you to Project Gutenberg, which is free as this novel is in the public domain. The Norton Critical Edition, shown, includes extensive notes and background information. Note that many of the Kindle editions of public domain books on Amazon contain errors and omissions.
Who is Barbara Kingsolver?
Barbara Kingsolver has published her short autobiography on her website, and that is the best way to find out about her. She has published numerous novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction over the years. Her first novel is The Bean Trees, set in Arizona. My personal favorite is The Poisonwood Bible, set in 1959 Congo, Africa.
Barbara Kingsolver has lived in Kentucky and Arizona, the setting for The Bean Trees, in the Congo, the setting of The Poisonwood Bible, and Washington County, Virginia, in the region that Demon Copperhead is set.
Kingsolver co-wrote a book about her life on her farm in Virginia called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral with her husband and daughters. For fifteen years, they ran the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild and Harvest Table Restaurant, which closed in September, 2022.
The Appalachian area, which includes to the mountains, including parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, has always been isolated because of its topography. The people who lived there had a reputation for being independent. West Virginia was SO independent that it actually seceded from the rest of Virginia during the Civil War because those counties disagreed with Virginia’s decision to join the Confederate States of America.
For years, the Appalachian region has suffered from numerous challenges, including the effects of mining and more recently, drug abuse. This story has been featured in several nonfiction books and documentaries (scroll down). Demon Copperhead draws on the realities of life in Appalachia, but it also reveals the beauty of both the natural environment and its people.
Literary Terms: bildungsroman and pastiche
Bildungsroman is a story about a person’s coming of age. Yup, that’s it, a very fancy word for a pretty simple plot structure.
A pastiche is any work of art that imitates another one as an homage. Of course, the trick is to create a new work of art from the original, if that makes sense. If the new work makes fun of the original one, that’s an parody. A pastiche can either imitate a literery style, content, or both.
Demon Copperhead is a pastiche of David Copperfield, and both books are examples of bildungsroman.
Water as a Motif
A motif is simply a symbol or idea that is repeated throughout a text (book, movie, etc.). Water is a very common motif in literature. You can guess why: water is necessary to life.
Before the opening of the story, Demon’s father has died by drowning at a place called “Devil’s Bathtub”. Demon is born “en caul”, which is a rare phenomenon in which an infant is born inside the amniotic sack, which usually breaks open during labor (more on that below). Throughout the novel, Demon yearns to see the ocean, which proves to be a challenge, even though his chosen destination, Virginia Beach, is only about 6 hours away by car.
When you think about the importance of water in this novel, if you care to, consider all the ways that people use it.
Being born “in the sack”, or en caul
The idea of being born inside the amniotic sack might not seem real, but it is. Formally, it’s known as being born “en caul”. You can see a report with video from CNN here.
The superstition is that someone born “en caul” can’t drown…but it isn’t true! It just means that the amniotic sac didn’t open, so the baby is born encased in the sac and amniotic fluid. Babies born “en caul” breathe through the umbilical cord en utero, just like any other fetus.
If you’re a reader of 18th century literature, you may have head of being born “with a caul” too. That’s a bit different. The caul is the amniotic membrane. Some babies are born with it draped across the face or shoulders, and it’s also supposed to be good luck. The “caul” is something I wondered about for years…one of the struggles of growing up before the Internet.
Water is important in this novel. Demon is born “in the sack” and is supposed to be destined to be safe from drowning, which is how his father died, at a place called “Devil’s Bathtub”. One of the pivotal scenes in the novel is set at “Devil’s Bathtub”, a place Demon has avoided. Finally, a reoccurring frustration for Demon are his aborted attempts to see the ocean, namely Virginia Beach.
Many Victorian authors wrote about social problems, but Charles Dickens continues to be one of the most well known. As the Victorian Era (latter half of the 1900’s) was also the first time in history that middle class people were literate, had time to read, and had easy and affordable access to reading material, there was also a market for books on these topics.
Industrialization created these conditions, but they also created social problems, which Dickens emphasized in his work. Factories created wealth, but factory jobs brought people to the city and made them dependent on money rather than what they could grow or make themselves. Demon alludes to this phenomenon when he compares life in Knoxville, TN to life in his native rural Virginia.
The literary period prior to the Victorian Age was the Romantic Period. Romantic Literature isn’t about love: it’s about a fascination with nature and a heavy dose of the supernatural, which is the basis for the Gothic, an offshoot of Romanticism. Demon Copperhead seems to give a deep nod to this period as well, with Demon’s devotion to his rural home county and descriptions of its beauty.
Discussion Questions for Demon Copperhead
Tips: Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.
One good way to start a conversation is to ask people what they “wondered” about. You could have people write their ideas down on slips of paper or write them on some sort of chart to discover the areas of general interest.
Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.
Opening Discussion Questions
Tip: Try to start with an easy, open ended question and encourage as many people as possible to respond to it. The sooner participants enter the conversation, the more likely they are to continue to contribute.
Demon spends time in the foster care system and is also the child of a former foster child, so the idea of belonging, to both people and a place, is important to him.
- What tools does a young child need to be successful in life?
- What is the best way to help children whose parents can’t care for them?
- What do you think of when you think of the area or town that you consider home?
- Do you agree with the ideas presented in the novel about the role that the mining industry played in destroying Appalachia?
- Would you rather be “city poor” or “country poor”? Demon presents a good case for being “country poor”, but doesn’t the city offer a lot of advantages not found in the country?
- How did you react to the description the lives of addicts in this novel?
- Demon’s friends, including Maggot, Emmy, Dori, and Agnes all have different backgrounds, yet they all are affected by the opioid crisis in some way. Do you think they are victims of their location (southwest Virginia) or do you think they would have the same problems anywhere?
- Which character affected you the most as you read this book?
Wrapping Up (spoiler alert)
1. What does Agnes see in Demon?
2. How could life in Appalachia change for the better? What would need to happen?
3. Why do you think this novel will remain popular or not?
Nonfiction Books and Movies Related to Demon Copperhead
Many people are familiar with the book Hillbilly Elegy, which has also been made into a Netflix movie, but that book only tells a part of the story. When I read Hillbilly Elegy (when it was released in 2018), I remember being struck by the fact that many of the problems people faced seemed to stem from unstable personal relationships more than anything else. If nothing else, its important to remember that Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s memoir and based on his own experiences.
Cassie Chambers’ Hill Women is about growing up in Kentucky Owsley County, considered the poorest county in the United States. She presents a more nuanced version of the story. While many of her relatives struggle, others find success largely through hanging on to those traditional values. Read The Lois Level on Hill Women here.
Sue Macy’s books Dopesick and Raising Lazurus are excellent companion reads to Demon Copperhead as they provide documented reporting on the themes that appear in Kingsolver’s book. Like Kingsolver, Macy lives in this region, but her books are based on interviews and reporting rather than her personal experiences.
David Ambroz’s book A Place Called Home recounts his experiences of growing up in foster care.
If you have read Demon Copperhead in your book club, please add your suggestions and comments for others below. If you have a book you’d like to see featured on The Lois Level, please send me an email or contact me on social media!
For more great reads set in Virginia and written by Virginians, check out The Lois Level reads Virginia!