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    Editors’ Picks: Demon Copperhead

    Barbara Kingsolver’s novel reimagines a Dickens classic in 1990s Appalachia.

    By Chris Zimmerman

    February 28, 2023
    • Sarah Allen

      In response to the last comment, Appalachia in this novel is certainly not presented as irredeemable. Certainly, as the commentator agrees, Kingsolver describes real degradation through poverty and drug addiction, which she shows have come about through the exploitation of outsiders, but at the same time she shows Appalachians to be full of dignity and the land to be full of beauty. In fact, the book stands as a direct condemnation of those who deal in cheap, snobbish ideas of 'hillbillies'. I'd urge you to read the book!

    • Michael Smathers

      I was born and bred on and am a lifelong resident of the Cumberland Plateau in Central Appalachia. A self-declared Hillbilly, I spent a significant portion of my life traveling over the hills and hollers of this region from Morganten, GA to Morgantown, WV, from Morganton, NC to Morehead, KY. I know the people of this region intimately. I have spent my life working with them in efforts to improve their standard of living, their quality of life, and their ability to control the colonial forces that have robbed them and their communities. I have helped to bury over 150 of them. I know their pain, their poverty, their drug-addicted desperation. I also know their strength, their wisdom, their ingenuity, their hustle, their neighborliness, their pride-of-place, their willingness to work, and the quality of their faith and piety. I do not recognize the Appalachia Chris Zimmerman describes in his review of Barbary Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead. Perhaps it is an Appalachia that Kingsolver has experienced. But it is not the only Appalachia that exists. In fact, it exists mostly in the minds of writers like Henry D. Shapiro, J. D. Vance, and Barbara Kingsolver. The description Zimmerman presents is a distortion of and disservice to the region. It is descriptions such as this that make many people see the word “hillbilly” as a slur, the Appalachian region as one of despair, squalor and hopelessness, and the people who live there as worthless and irredeemable. I object to such irresponsible descriptions of Appalachia and its people.

    Franz Kafka once wrote, “If what we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, what we need … are books that hit us like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.” Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead is such a book. Not for the fainthearted, it seethes with the raw energy of its foul-mouthed teen protagonist as it follows him through a childhood marked by domestic violence, addiction, and loss. The denouement contains glimmers of rehabilitation, but it’s the elusiveness of tidy resolutions that keeps the novel moving.

    Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, which inspired this novel, follows the trials of a young Englishman whose grit helps him navigate life in nineteenth-century London’s underbelly; Kingsolver’s reimagining is set in the 1990s in a vastly different but equally bleak milieu: her native Appalachia.

    Readers seeking the idealized beauty of rural Americana will not find it here. True, trilliums brighten the hollows in spring, and there are breathtaking mountaintop views. But forget Robert Frost: this landscape is scarred by defunct coal mines and failing farms, littered with dollar stores and pain clinics. Socially, too, there is wreckage – “trailer trash” and truck-stop whores, unscrupulous doctors who demand sexual favors for prescriptions, burned-out social workers, and fraudulent strivers. Not a family seems immune to the ravages of the opioid epidemic; everyone knows someone in prison or foster care, or someone who has OD’d.

    Kingsolver’s Appalachia is as much a state of mind as a region; like the hills that hem it in, the malaise has trapped generations. Even those who follow the lures of the world beyond never truly escape but often return, jaded by empty promises of advancement, or fleeing the jaws of big-city life.

    If this were reality TV, you might switch channels. But it’s not. Nor is it poverty porn – there’s nothing gratuitous. Indeed, Kingsolver’s novel rings with the authenticity of autobiography. As she has noted, her parents seemed to be leaning over her as she wrote, speaking to her “in a language that my years outside Appalachia tried to shame from my tongue.” Perhaps that’s why, instead of appearing as stock figures, her characters leap from the page as vibrant individuals so real that you might be tempted to Google them.

    And if, as at least one reviewer has charged, they seem to lack agency, that’s just the point the author appears to be making. Stuck in a whirlpool of institutional poverty, most of them (like the actual people who inspired them) have little hope of ever getting out. In bringing their travails to the page, Kingsolver confronts us with that reality. To quote the dedication embedded in her acknowledgements, “For the kids who wake up hungry in dark places every day, who’ve lost their families to poverty and pain pills … who feel invisible, or wish they were: this book is for you.”

    Contributed By ChrisZimmerman Chris Zimmerman

    Chris Zimmerman is a member of the Bruderhof. He and wife, Bea, live in Ulster Park, New York.

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