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Learn what happens with this Demon Copperhead summary (with the ending explained). This in-depth guide to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club selection by Barbara Kingsolver shares the plight of many Americans in Appalachia. You’ll get all your questions answered about the book answered here, so let’s get literary!

person holding demon copperhead by barbara kingsolver in front of bookshelves.

Demon Copperhead Summary & Plot Analysis

Demon Copperhead was not just a five-star read for me — it was one of the best books to read ever. It’s also achieved the following accolades:

  • 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

This Demon Copperhead summary conveys the full plot, generally speaking, for those who need it, but it is NOT a book chapter summary that spoils every detail, to leave many details of this masterful book for the reader to uncover on his or her own.

Inspired by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is a character-driven novel that 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.

(Learn more about the characters in Demon Copperhead.)

Demon’s early childhood years are marked with all the trappings you would expect in his circumstances. 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. She 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. 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. It leaves 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, as 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 With Spoilers

WARNING: The next three paragraphs contain major plot spoilers of the ending.

Over the next few years of sober living, Demon finishes his novel.

Meanwhile, Maggot and his mother have been released from prison and live 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the summary of Demon Copperhead?

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.

What is the message of Demon Copperhead?

The point of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is to show how struggles like poverty, addiction, and the foster system can make it extremely hard for a person to survive and succeed, and how, on the other hand, stability, love, and family, can contribute to a person’s happiness and self-fulfillment.

Does Demon Copperhead have a sad ending?

No. At the end of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, 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.

What race is Demon Copperhead?

In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, the titular character is Melungeon.

Conclusion

As this Demon Copperhead summary 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 for years to come. Read more about its impact in my review of Demon Copperhead.

Also, if you read this book with your book club, be sure to check out these discussion questions for Demon Copperhead.

Keep the conversation going! Share your thoughts or any remaining questions you have in the comments below.

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