Watch Out For Snakes

Barbara Kingsolver is a super successful, multi-talented writer, and we’ve both read her before. She is a writer with a cause, and her cry for justice–whether it be environmental or social–is often felt in her literary efforts. In 2022, Demon Copperhead hit the world, a re-telling (with a freshness) of Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield. We read it. In this epic, young Damon–Demon–is a troubled kid in southern Appalachia. We journey through trailers with single moms to foster homes fraught with neglect. We meet Social Services (it’s not called CPS anymore!) and drug addiction. We get to know good kids, bad kids, wise teachers, strong grandparents. And Demon grows up.

Jennifer:  Lara, what have you read before by Kingsolver? How does this measure up? Did you like it?

Lara: I first read The Bean Trees while in Freshman Comp at the University of Arizona and she came and spoke to the English department. I loved it and her speaking to us sparked my love of attending author events. 

Jennifer: I’m always a little jealous of everyone’s Kingsolver/U of AZ stories. I don’t have any! (I was there too.)

Lara: I also got to see Maya Angelou, but now I am just bragging. 

Okay, so I have read a few of Kingsolver’s books over the years… although not as many as I would have thought. Animal Dreams, Flight Behavior, and I was very late to The Poisonwood Bible, listening to it on audio a few years ago. I still have to read Prodigal Summer.

Here’s the thing. I have mostly enjoyed all of the books of hers that I have read. Here’s the other thing. I am not a fan of many Classics. So, when I heard that she had written a modern take on David Copperfield (which I still have not read) I was all in. And, I can say, I thought it was a great book!

What of her books have you read? Did you read David Copperfield? Did you like it? What about this modern take? 

Jennifer: Which Kingsolver have I read? I’ve read Animal Dreams, High Tide in Tucson, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible. I tend to like her, but not love her–I don’t rush out to read her latest. 

I’m not a fan of Dickens! I haven’t read David Copperfield! (I do love Classics, though!) So, yeah, I preferred this!

Generally speaking, I don’t love the idea of a re-telling–but I think there can be great re-tellings. Can you give me one or two examples?

Lara: Sure! Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a thousand times better than its inspiration, King Lear. I liked Madeline Miller’s Circe infinitely better than The Odyssey. And, I recently listened to Ibi Zoboi’s Pride which is a fresh take on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Bushwick, NY. 

Jennifer: Slamming Shakespeare! Oh, you reminded me that I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Well, one thing that always gets me with Kingsolver is that I sometimes feel as if she’s a bit heavy-handed with her do-gooder message. Like, the agenda is so there. Did you feel that here?

Lara: I have felt that she can be heavy-handed, but I didn’t find that to be the case here. She’s certainly telling one story, one example of the opioid crisis in Appalachia and its take or stronghold on a community, and in particular, a young boy/man. At the same time, I don’t feel like one would read this and say, “HEY! We shouldn’t be talking about this. Or… What the hell is she doing trying to show the dark combination of poverty, the abundantly easy access to prescription painkillers, the lack of behavioral health resources, and all the other contributing factors that have resulted in the Appalachian region having an overdose mortality rate for people ages 25–54 that was 61 percent higher in the Region than the rest of the country in 2020.”

She’s writing about an important reality facing a lot of people in a way that’s compelling, and keeps you wanting to read more. I also liked how likable Demon was. I was totally rooting for him throughout. I mean, I was also cringing and pounding my fists at some of his decisions, but I felt for him. I wanted him to prevail.   

Jennifer: I have to say that the do-gooder-ness is usually a Kingsolver Turn-Off for me–but, like you, not with this one.

I like her. I read The Lacuna on the beach, all vacation-y, because a friend loved it and gave it to me.

But I can’t tell you one thing about it. 

I think writers need to be careful with their agendas–and, believe me, I need to really take to heart my own words. I’m a political beast, and it’s okay to write out of one’s strong beliefs. However, the story has to, um, “earn” the agenda. It has to “serve” the story. Can you think of an example in which the author has a noble agenda, but it’s realized and earned by the story? I think that’s the kind of fiction that truly works.

Lara: Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations does this really well. It’s about a woman seeking to track the last likely migration of Arctic Terns, while at the same time coming to terms with her own trauma. The author brilliantly hints at a semi-dystopian/ semi-plausible future where species are dying off, yet you come away with this richly drawn character and story that doesn’t read like a book of what issues you should be caring about and who you should be voting for. That said, I care about our climate, and maybe it didn’t feel heavy-handed because I agree with what I am assuming her politics are.

Jennifer: No, I think that’s a good example. Even if you agree or not, an agenda can be heavy-handed.

Ha! This is a quote from Demon:

“[A] good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it.”

One thing I truly admired about this book is that it exposed a world I know very little about: southern Appalachia. At the same time, Demon is pretty “universal.” Did you go into this knowing a lot of this stuff?

Lara: I had some recent knowledge based on the amount of news the opioid crisis has been generating in recent years. While I haven’t read or watched Dopesick, I did read Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s an excellent book of nonfiction on the Sackler Dynasty and their role in manufacturing OxyContin/OxyCodone. 

Jennifer: This is a telling quote:

“What’s an oxy, I’d asked. That November it was still a shiny new thing. OxyContin, God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel. For the bent-over lady pulling double shifts at Dollar General with her shot knees and ADHD grandkids to raise by herself. For every football player with some of this or that torn up, and the whole world riding on his getting back in the game. This was our deliverance. The tree was shaken and yes, we did eat of the apple.”

I do want to say that I really liked this book quite a bit. It’ll be my fave Kingsolver. I liked Demon a lot too–and I was definitely vested in his success. I loved how Kingsolver resolved it (though it was a tad contrived?) I loved the way Kingsolver lovingly portrayed ​​Appalachia, a world my Yankee-self likely only sees through stereotypical lenses. I’d add this to Dopesick, the Hulu Limited Series, in revealing the oxy-hell-hole hitting hard all over but especially in this mysterious region we mostly know from Deliverance or riffs on a banjo (Kingsolver said something like this). What do I know about Appalachia? I think I’d like to hike there, but I never will; there’s freaks who do snake-handling; Beverly Hillbillies (Kingsolver notes), and a bunch of pretty devastating bad jokes. 

Kingsolver shows humanity here. She knows what she’s up against. She writes,

“The world is not at all short on this type of thing, it turns out. All down the years, words have been flung like pieces of shit, only to get stuck on a truck bumper with up-yours pride. Rednecks, moonshiners, ridge runners, hicks. Deplorables.”

And she also shows a kind of tenderness towards those suffering:

“If you’re surprised a mom would discuss boyfriend hotness with a kid still learning not to pick his nose, you’ve not seen the far end of lonely.”

She understands the pain.

What did you not like about this book?

Lara: I didn’t love his love interest, Dori. She was a super bad influence – but that’s not a flaw with the book. It added tension and was realistic. Demon was born to parents who were addicts; he was born in a part of the country that would have a huge influence on who he became. And, at one point, he uses his artistic talents to profit off of his trauma. I guess that’s a form of irony, or is it an earned benefit of his experience. I did think that was a good development that helped him, even if it cast stones. Oh, and I loved the ending. I always wonder how authors are going to wrap up epic novels like this (560 pages/21 hours!), and she did a great job.

Was there anything you didn’t like?

Jennifer: Dori too. I thought it was a bit too long. That diving hole/nature bit? Where were they? Devil’s something? Too long. 

But there was a lot of charm:

“They had chickens at one time, including this rooster with the mind of a serial killer that gave me bad dreams.”

I’m afraid of roosters. 

Next Time!

We will be reading and chatting about Catherine Newman’s We All Want Impossible Things!

Until then… Happy Reading, Snotties!