Stubborn resilience: An impoverished town in Appalachia. Image: Mark Power / Magnum Photos

Charles Dickens in Appalachia

A riotously entertaining reworking of “David Copperfield” is a tribute to its characters’ stubborn resilience
November 3, 2022
Demon Copperhead
Barbara Kingsolver (RRP: £20)
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“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” This opening sentence of Dickens’s David Copperfield seems puzzling at first. What other candidates for the role of hero could there be in a semi-autobiographical novel in which even the narrator’s initials mirror those of his author? Yet, as the story develops, we encounter several potential rivals, including a mad second-hand clothes dealer and a flute-playing schoolmaster who are both named Charley, and a character called Mr Dick who is writing a memorial of King Charles I. It turns out that being the hero of your own life isn’t always a straightforward matter when so many other people are crowded in the wings, waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

Since the publication of David Copperfield’s first monthly instalment in 1849, Dickens’s narrative opening has acquired several extra layers of irony from the number of times it has been adapted by later writers. It reappears in Sidney Howard’s screenplay for the movie Gone with the Wind (1939), where a group of women read Dickens’s novel aloud while waiting for their husbands to return from a meeting of Southern defenders. It is playfully alluded to at the start of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), when Holden Caulfield explains that he doesn’t really feel like telling us where he was born, or what his “lousy childhood” was like, or “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. Now it forms the starting point for Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, an updated version of Dickens’s coming-of-age story that relocates the action to southern Appalachia and highlights new causes of social misery, from opioid addiction to eye-popping examples of cruelty and neglect in the foster care system.

Kingsolver’s story begins with the birth of redhaired, quick-witted Demon Copperhead, who spends the first part of his childhood living with his troubled young mother in a trailer in Lee County, Virginia, alongside their neighbours the Peggots. As he grows older, these echoes of David Copperfield start to seem less like a coincidence than the result of a tragic curse, because everything bad that happens to Dickens’s David also happens to Kingsolver’s Demon, although usually the outcome is far worse and lasts far longer. While David’s mother quietly fades away, Demon’s dies messily of a drugs overdose; while David is sent to work in a warehouse, washing old bottles and pasting new labels onto them, Demon is given to a foster carer, who puts him to work on his farm doing the back-breaking job of harvesting tobacco, alongside several other half-starved boys.

In fact, Dickens visited a chewing tobacco factory in Virginia during his first American tour in 1842. He noticed how much of the work was being done by slaves; alongside some handsome residences in nearby Richmond, there were also “deplorable tenements, fences unrepaired, walls crumbling into ruinous heaps”. Reading Kingsolver’s descriptions of the run-down farm where Demon and the other boys are forced to work in exchange for their welfare payments, little appears to have changed.

The dangers of adapting such a well-known story were revealed in April 1981, when the musical Copperfield opened on Broadway to a loud chorus of critical boos; it closed 10 days later. Featuring a set of songs that mimicked several other popular shows, according to Frank Rich in the New York Times, it was “the kind of musical that sends you out of the theatre humming every score other than the one you’ve just heard”.

Kingsolver nimbly sidesteps this trap by not only offering the reader more of the same in relation to her source—more pathos, more attempts to find fragments of love and beauty in a world that seems determined to grind them into the dirt—but also a series of imaginative twists. Familiar characters are introduced in unfamiliar ways: David’s idol Steerforth becomes the careless, cocksure heartbreaker Fast Forward; David’s cruel stepfather Mr Murdstone becomes the tattooed, shaven-headed thug Murrell Stone, better known as Stoner. Several famous moments from Dickens’s novel reappear in new disguises, like the narrative equivalent of a false nose and a pair of spectacles: Betsey Trotwood peering in through the window of David’s family home becomes for Demon “a stranger’s face pressed so hard against the bathroom window her mouth looks like a butt crack”; David’s close-up sight of Murdstone’s stubble as a collection of strong black dots on his face is reworked when Stoner licks the salt from a packet of fries off his fingers and Demon notices the “little grains in his black beard”. The result reads like David Copperfield as reflected in a series of carnival mirrors: while some parts of Dickens’s novel bulge or shrink in significance, others are twisted into strange new shapes.

Dickens and Kingsolver come together in their conviction that fiction does more than open an imaginary window onto the world

Kingsolver’s approach generates a narrative that is compulsively readable and often deeply moving: at its best, Demon Copperhead is a novel that grabs the reader by the heartstrings and refuses to let go. However, what is largely missing from it is Dickens’s sense of perspective. After David Copperfield is “thrown away” as a child, he tells us how “wonderful” (ie curious) it seems to his adult self that nobody stepped in to save him, but one of the key ideas of Dickens’s novel is that wonder can be more than just a form of surprise. It can also be used as a way of compensating for the horrors of real life. Born with a “romantic and dreamy nature”, David starts by telling stories to entertain his schoolfriends, and eventually becomes a famous novelist whose dreams and romances offer him an economic as well as an imaginative escape from poverty. Yet we are also reminded that the young David repeatedly misreads the adult world into which he has been prematurely thrust, and the narrator’s voice overlays these perspectives on each other so that Dickens can celebrate his hero’s innocence while also gently poking fun at his naivety.

There is little of this in Demon Copperhead. Occasionally an episode shows young Demon to be just as wide-eyed as young David—when he shares a room on the farm with the other boys, he hears what he thinks is someone “itching bad” in their bed, and admits that he would need to be older before he worked out what a boy might be doing under the covers to make it sound as if he were vigorously scratching himself. But for the most part, Kingsolver makes it clear that a child who grows up looking after a drug-addicted parent is never going to have much of a childhood. As a result, her hero must learn basic physical survival skills rather than comic resilience, and the characters that he encounters have a far harder edge than their Dickensian originals. The role of Micawber, with his sunny optimism that something will turn up, is taken by a military veteran who has a disturbing love of home surveillance alongside a head full of get-rich-quick schemes. Betsey Trotwood, who generously welcomes David into her home and becomes a substitute mother to him, is replaced by Betsy Woodall, who allows Demon to stay for a while but soon places him with another foster parent.

Most significantly, the fairytale elements of David Copperfield, in which goodness is rewarded and bad behaviour punished, are replaced by a form of brutal social realism. In this world, poverty is a snare that offers few opportunities for escape, and struggling against it only serves to tighten the noose. The outcome is a novel in which the events are nastier and the tone harsher, capable of switching from the lyrical (Demon watching his new foster carer leaning on his daughter “like a man saved”) to the bluntly physical (“trying not to get an under-table woodie” as the main challenge of having a pretty girl as your tutor) with the turn of a page.

Where Dickens and Kingsolver come together is in their conviction that fiction can do more than merely open an imaginary window onto the world. As Demon puts it, “A good story doesn’t just copy life; it pushes back on it.” In Kingsolver’s case, this involves some unusually frank appeals for sympathy and understanding about the environment that shapes her hero. One character explicitly lists the social problems bubbling away under the story’s surface (“No decent schooling, she said. No chance to get good at anything that uses our talents. No future”). Another complains that Appalachia has usually been seen by the rest of America as a source of either humour in TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, or horror in the 1972 film Deliverance. At these points, it’s hard not to hear the novelist herself speaking underneath the flimsiest of fictional masks.

Her plot offers one remedy. Whereas Dickens’s David becomes a novelist like his creator, Kingsolver’s Demon becomes a cartoonist who creates a new character. This is not the type familiar to readers of comic strips like Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, which ran from 1934 to 1977 on a steady diet of backwoods eccentricity and violence, but a progressive superhero with the red bandana once worn by the area’s striking miners, who stars in a series of adventures entitled Red Neck. However, the more significant remedy is Kingsolver’s own style. Once the Dickensian flourishes are stripped away from Demon Copperhead, what remains is in effect a love letter to the astonishing beauty of the Appalachian region and the stubborn resilience of its people. “Trifles make the sum of life”, concludes Dickens’s David and, as if taking this as her cue, Kingsolver repeatedly crystalises her love of Appalachia into sharp-eyed descriptive details: the type of autumn day “where the world feels like it’s about to change its mind on everything”, or scudding clouds that throw shadows “like a herd of wild monsters rumpusing over the field”.

Such passages owe little to Dickens, but they are exactly the sort of thing he might have written if he had spent longer than three days in the region. (In a sly wink to the reader, Demon observes of Dickens’s interest in “kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass” that “You’d think he was from around here.”) During his 1842 visit to Virginia, Dickens attended a dinner in Richmond where a local newspaper editor boasted that the state’s famous political sons Jefferson, Washington and Madison had forged a nation and “never indulged in works of imagination” or “in the charms of romance”—a claim that their honoured guest would probably have met with a raised eyebrow and possibly also a curl of the lip. Kingsolver’s flawed but riotously entertaining novel shows just what they were missing.