When I sent the Courier my short reviews of the best books of 2022 in December, I deliberately omitted Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead — because I knew a short review could in no way do justice to Kingsolver’s masterpiece.

From the start, I was intrigued by the mysterious title and by the information on the cover saying that she had written the book to update Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which is quite a tall order, especially since she set the book in Appalachia instead of London.

What I didn’t quite understand was that from the very first remarkable sentence Kingsolver’s language and storytelling skill would keep me happily lost in the vivid world she created.

“First, I got myself born,” the young narrator tells us on page one. He follows up saying that “the worst of the job was up to [him]” because his teenaged mother was “let’s just say out of it,” explaining at that point he was only “a slick fish-colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real life.” He gives credit for his knowing this to a neighbor, Mrs. Peggot, who luckily arrived at the front door of their trailer to check on his mom. She then yelled over to her husband to “call 911 because a poor child in the bathroom is trying to punch himself out of a bag.” He looked “like a little blue prizefighter,” she tells him later.

For a while his mother gives her all in rehab and is able to retain custody. She “gave it a hundred percent. Gave and gave again over the years, getting to be an expert at rehab, like they say. Having done it so many times,” the young narrator explains. He is also helped along by living next door to the Peggots. But none of these things last.

“A kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing,” the narrator then tells us. “As a kid you just accept different worlds with different rules,” which could be a helpful attitude to have if you are going to spend much of your life shuffled between worlds, especially the kinds of worlds our protagonist has to shuffle between.

By any measurement, Barbara Kingsolver has more than succeeded with her update of the Dickens masterpiece, creating a masterpiece of her own. Everything I’ve quoted or told you so far is found between pages1-9, and the rest of the book is an unforgettable page turner, though heartbreaking at times, as our young narrator punches his way through the many varieties of skin-bags his life suits him in.

— Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine

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