At this time of year, a litany of gratitude often fills my head from the first dozy hours of the morning until I hit that first intractable problem on the computer. My gratitude journal bulges with things like this:
a lavish pour of sunset, like being in a basket of red-gold peaches,
the frothy Netflix drama “Enola Holmes,”
burrowing cold hands into my grandchildren’s sweatshirt pockets,
the quiet chit-chat of five small birds in my hanging flower basket,
the smell of wet leaves, essence of autumn,
setting the table for three of my children to come for breakfast,
the immense comfort of flannel shirt, old sweatshirt and jeans,
hot tea in a special mug, with an oatmeal cooky to fuel the writing,
the glimpse of water-colored hills in the far distance,
a splendid library system with automatic renewals and no fines.
It is to the last item on the list that I feel special gratitude, for getting me the newest Barbara Kingsolver novel, Demon Copperhead.
I’ll leave it to the Dickens scholars to probe the parallels with David Copperfield, but both books vividly describe the harm that poverty and neglect can wreck on children. Demon, (who was named Damon at birth) the hero and narrator is innocent and vulnerable, the son of a teen-aged single mom with a drug problem, born in a single-wide trailer.
As starters, these strikes against him might sound too depressing for some readers to continue. But what saves the day are the number of good people who genuinely try to help, or at least understand, which feels to Demon “like not being hungry.” Other stellar elements are the formidable resilience of the hero, his wicked sense of humor, and a stoic sense of how doomed he is from the start. His vision of Social Services, foster parents, being the free-lunch kid at school and recipient of food sacks sent home by church ladies on weekends is clear-eyed, and sometimes hilarious. Although he refers to himself with Hilary Clinton’s unfortunate word “deplorable,” he quickly has the reader in his camp.
On his eleventh birthday, his mom dies and the social worker who brings the news has a one-word explanation: oxy. That’s when we come to detest Big Pharm even more, if that is possible, for the way it preyed on the vulnerable. The opioid epidemic soon wipes out the small gains Demon has made, kills many of his friends, and leaves most of the county’s youth in a sad stupor.
In high school, Demon is briefly retrieved, adopted, funded by his grandmother, and becomes a star on the football team. But an injury and consequent chronic pain start his long descent into narcotics. He describes his inner “wanting disease,” “the hopeless wishes that won’t quit stalking you: some perfect words you think you could say to somebody to make them see you, and love you, and stay.” (p. 281) A coach and two teachers desperately try to save him, but he “follows doctor’s orders,” when Dr. is nothing but a murderous drug-dealer.
Like Dickens, Kingsolver goes to the dark places which many kids must frequent. The reader follows along in a kind of “when it can’t get any worse, it does” tension. The hero, despite his downward spiral, is still funny, and becomes more compassionate as he hurts more: “I know pain if I see it.” (p. 535) Kingsolver herself has Appalachian roots which give her deep empathy with her characters, an understanding of the place, and an ear for its language. Lest the reader be too wary, the novel ends on an uplift, restoring hope and redeeming Demon.
Those of us who judge it a Crisis to misplace our cell phones can’t begin to imagine the desperation, hunger, fear, humiliation and pain that drive someone to addiction. But reading this book is a small step towards deeper understanding and broader compassion.