Explore this Demon Copperhead review and summary for an in-depth guide to everything you need to know about the now Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club selection by Barbara Kingsolver that gave a very memorable identity to the plight of many Americans in Appalachia.
Demon Copperhead Awards:
- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
- Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction
- A New York Times “Ten Best Books of 2022”
- Instant New York Times Bestseller
- Instant Wall Street Journal Bestseller
- #1 Washington Post Bestseller
- Oprah’s Book Club pick
I read Demon Copperhead a few months ago, but I’m still thinking about it — often — and talking with other readers about it, which brings all my thoughts and feelings to the forefront of my brain again.
Also, since that time, Barbara Kingsolver has gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Women’s Prize for fiction. I’m always especially inspired when anyone sees such industry and public success after literally decades of work, including her very famous novel, The Poisonwood Bible.
At this point, I think Demon Copperhead is one of those rare books I will continue to be thinking about, and the world will continue to be talking about, for a long time. So, I want to explore it in more detail.
Initially, I placed all my notes into a post with discussion questions for Demon Copperhead, but here and now I’m digging even deeper with a character guide, summary (with the ending explained), review, quotes, and frequently asked questions.
First in this Demon Copperhead review is a brief rundown of the most prominent characters.
Damon Fields (“Demon Copperhead”): The protagonist of the novel, which begins at his birth as a poor boy in Lee County, Virginia (Appalachia)
“Mom” Fields: Demon’s single mother, a poor and drug-addicted teen
Mr. and Mrs. Peggott: an older couple who are neighbors, and often caretakers, to Demon in his childhood years
Matt Peggott “(Maggot”): Demon’s closest childhood friend and the Peggotts’ grandson, for whom they care while his mother is in jail
Murrell Stone (“Stoner”): Demon’s stepfather, who is abusive to Demon and his mother
Emmy: Maggot’s cousin, a good friend to both Demon and Maggott
June Peggott: Emmy’s aunt and guardian, a nurse and a stable parental figure who is against the opioid epidemic
Miss Barks: Demon’s social worker, who is overworked and underpaid
Mr. Crickson (“Creaky”): Demon’s first foster parent, a struggling tobacco farmer who uses foster children for labor
Tommy Waddell (“Waddles”): Demon’s friend in foster care, a genuinely good person
Sterling Ford (“Fast Forward”): Demon’s friend in foster care and the high school quarterback — a charismatic star with a dark side, including drug use
Mr. and Mrs. McCobb: Demon’s chronically insolvent second foster parents, who are both abusive and neglectful
Betsy Woodall: Demon’s paternal grandmother, who cares for girls and gets him into a better foster placement
Dick: Betsy’s brother, a smart man who is physically handicapped
Coach Winfield: Demon’s football coach and his final caretaker, who is generally well-intentioned, but struggles with alcohol addiction, grief, and an unhealthy obsession with football
Agnes (“Angus”): Coach Winfield’s daughter, who is bright, competent, loving, and anti-drugs
Ryan Pyles (“U-Haul”): a “helper” of the Wilfields who takes advantage of them
Hammerhead Kelly (“Hammer”): a distant Peggott cousin by marriage and Emmy’s first “real” boyfriend
Dori: Demon’s drug-addicted high school girlfriend
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Inspired by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead transports the reader to modern-day Appalachia, where Damon Fields is born to a drug-addicted single mother living in poverty in one very shocking and violent scene that foreshadows his future. Since he was born in the amniotic sac, it is symbolically said that he will not die by drowning.
Damon soon becomes known as Demon Copperhead due, in part, to the red hair he inherited from his deceased father.
His early childhood years are marked with all the trappings you would expect in his circumstances, but one bright light is his companionship with the Peggotts next door, an older couple that cares for their grandson and Demon’s friend, Maggott, while his mother is in jail after a violent attack on her abusive boyfriend.
The Peggotts often look after Demon, and at one point, they take him to Knoxville to visit Maggott’s Aunt June, a nurse and stable parent, and his cousin Emmy, who also becomes a close friend to Demon. Particularly, after they share the delight of visiting the aquarium, Demon becomes fascinated with water and seeing the ocean — a wishful dream for a boy in his shoes.
Demon’s mother then marries an imposing man named Stoner, whose abuse harms Demon and leads to his mother’s descent back into drugs. She attempts rehabilitation but eventually dies from an overdose — on Demon’s 11th birthday.
Thus, Demon is thrust into the foster system. First, he is placed with an older man named Mr. McCrickson (“Creaky”), who uses Demon and the other fosters, including Tommy Waddles, a kind and overweight boy, and Fast Forward, a charismatic football star with a dark side that includes drugs, for unpaid child labor on his tobacco farm.
Next, Demon is placed at the home of the McCobbs, who seem to continually dig themselves further into financial ruin. They, too, are neglectful and abusive to Demon. Besides using their foster care money for themselves, and not for Demon’s care, they force him to work sorting through trash at a market that is a front for a meth lab.
Demon escapes to the Tennessee home of his paternal grandmother, Betsy Woodall, who raises girls and gets him placed back in Virginia with Lee County’s Coach Winfield, a widow with a bright 8th-grade daughter named Angus, a tomboy. This placement leads Demon to some stability and normalcy, particularly as he lands a seemingly positive role on the football team with Fast-Forward — that is until he’s injured and begins popping pain pills.
Meanwhile, he dates Dori, who he loves, but who also descends into drug addiction.
During this time, Tommy Waddles helps Demon publish his Red Neck superhero comics in the local paper and land a publishing contract.
In a surprising turn of events, Emmy, who had been dating Fast-Forward, was forced into sex work in Atlanta to support his drug habits and is rescued by June and Demon. Indeed, she’s proof that bad things can happen to even the best people in Demon’s world.
On the way home, Demon finally learns that his father died in an accidental drowning at “Devil’s Bathtub,” yet another reference to the force of water.
When Demon returns home, Dori, who was pregnant for a short time, becomes so drug-addicted that she miscarries, and then, she, too, overdoses and dies, just like the other female figure in Demon’s life — his mother.
A tragic night fueled by drugs follows at Devil’s Bathtub amongst Demon, Maggot, and Emmy’s two love interests, Hammer and Fast Forward, leaving Fast-Forward dead after falling on rocks and Hammer drowned after trying to save him. Including Demon’s father, three men in his life have now died there.
In the aftermath, Maggot is convicted as an accomplice in Hammer’s death; however, his sentencing comes with a very bright spot — he is forced to receive treatment for his drug addiction.
Finally, Demon too has hit rock bottom and seeks to rehabilitate.
Demon Copperhead Ending Explained
Over the next few years of sober living, Demon finishes his novel.
Meanwhile, both Maggot and his mother have been released and reunited, living together. Emmy also rehabilitated herself and lives in a halfway house practicing a different form of art — dance.
As the story of Demon Copperhead ends, Demon and Angus are driving together. They have found true, unconditional love in each other, and they head to a place that can symbolize both solace and rebirth, a place of which Demon has always dreamed — the ocean.
While many have suffered at the hands of water in Demon’s life, his prophecy of not drowning despite his circumstances is fulfilled.
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Indeed, what follows is an epic tale “for the ages” that only Kingsolver could tell. Why? Because she’s inexplicably tied to Appalachia, and because the authors I’ve read who have best succeeded at invoking empathy in the reader are the ones who themselves are most intimately tied to their stories and characters.
Kingsolver’s personal ties to the area and its people also allow her to transcend stereotypes and, rather, powerfully convey how she (and they feel). She is outrageously angry. She is fiercely loyal. And it all comes through in the character of Demon Copperhead, a boy representative of a people forgotten, discarded, and betrayed.
Speaking of characters, Demon Copperhead is one of the most memorable I’ve read. I’m convinced that, if the name “Barbara Kingsolver” wasn’t written on the cover most readers would think it’s a memoir.
(By the way, make sure you take a close look at the cover — it’s a tapestry of illustrations bearing greater meaning in weaving Demon’s story.)
In conveying the unique personality of a character in literature, voice is so important, and Demon’s is exceptionally distinct. He’s had a rough start and a rough everything that comes after that, and it’s through his cynical, yet endearing and “wise beyond his years” voice that Kingsolver balances the realities of his situations with a sense of hope for Demon.
As far as themes go, the theme of art being created by Demon from the depths of darkness is one that always feels meaningful to me. (Think: The Great Believers.) And the theme of water simply cannot be ignored as a force that kills several in Demon’s life, yet offers him a chance to overpower it and be reborn into a better life by it.
While Demon Copperhead was, without a doubt, a five-star read for me, it was admittedly also a slow character-driven read for me. It took me about three weeks to read, and I heard other readers describe the experience the same way.
Make no mistake, it was not by any means a “slog” or even a slow burn — it’s just the type of novel I needed to read slowly, in small doses, and savor and reflect on it. I say this so that, if you feel stuck or behind, you are inspired to keep going at your own pace.
At the end of that day, this is one book that will stick with you long afterward.
Demon Copperhead is a transcendent novel of many really important things, including social justice, redemption, and finding one’s self. It’s the kind of book that reminds me I can’t just pick up “fiction writing” as a hobby, or even a career goal, and expect it to have any significance in the world. And, it’s one of the rare books that truly earns the description: “tour de force.”
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Frequently Asked Questions
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is about a modern Appalachian boy who grows up fighting for survival, as his life is consumed by the difficulties of poverty, addiction, and the foster system.
No. While Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is a fictional story inspired by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, you need not read David Copperfield beforehand to understand and appreciate Demon Copperhead.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver takes place in Lee County, Virginia, a part of the United States decimated financially by the coal and tobacco industries, as well as the rise in opioid addictions that sprang from work-related injuries.
In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, the titular character is Melungeon.
Yes. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, the titular character is Melungeon.
In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, the titular character’s grandmother is Betsy Woodall, who cares for girls and gets him into a better foster placement.
Yes. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Angus is Coach Winfield’s daughter.
In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Aunt June is Emmy’s aunt and guardian, a nurse and a stable parental figure who is against the opioid epidemic.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver contains a multitude of trigger warnings. The most prominent among them include drug addiction, abuse (physical, emotional, verbal), poverty, the foster care system, the opioid epidemic, death, sexual abuse, and violence.
No. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is a long book, and the pace moves slowly, but it is not difficult to read.
Yes. Demon Copperhead by Kingsolver is worth reading. It is a bestseller and Oprah’s book club pick that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Women’s Prize for fiction. It has been hailed by critics and readers alike.
As this Demon Copperhead review comes to an end, suffice it to say, Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is a once-in-a-lifetime type of novel that will resonate with readers, and hopefully foster change, for years and years to come.
It has made a lasting mark on me, and I hope it either has or will on you too.
Related Post: Demon Copperhead Discussion Questions
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