Barbara Kingsolver takes a Dickensian journey through Appalachia for new novel 'Demon Copperhead'
Editor’s note: This story was rebroadcasted on May 18, 2023. Find that audio here.
Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with author Barbara Kingsolver about her new book “Demon Copperhead,” which takes Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield” and sets it in modern-day southern Appalachia.
The book was announced as a co-winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction earlier this month.
Book excerpt: ‘Demon Copperhead’
By Barbara Kingsolver
First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.
The cover of “Demon Copperhead.” (Courtesy)
On any other day they’d have seen her outside on the deck of her trailer home, good neighbors taking notice, pestering the tit of trou- ble as they will. All through the dog-breath air of late summer and fall, cast an eye up the mountain and there she’d be, little bleach-blonde smoking her Pall Malls, hanging on that railing like she’s captain of her ship up there and now might be the hour it’s going down. This is an eighteen-year-old girl we’re discussing, all on her own and as pregnant as it gets. The day she failed to show, it fell to Nance Peggot to go bang on the door, barge inside, and find her passed out on the bathroom floor with her junk all over the place and me already coming out. 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.
Mr. Peggot was outside idling his truck, headed for evening service, probably thinking about how much of his life he’d spent waiting on women. His wife would have told him the Jesusing could hold on a minute, first she needed to go see if the little pregnant gal had got her- self liquored up again. Mrs. Peggot being a lady that doesn’t beat around the bushes and if need be, will tell Christ Jesus to sit tight and keep his pretty hair on. She came back out yelling for him to call 911 because a poor child is in the bathroom trying to punch himself out of a bag. Like a little blue prizefighter. Those are the words she’d use later on, being not at all shy to discuss the worst day of my mom’s life. And if that’s how I came across to the first people that laid eyes on me, I’ll take it. To me that says I had a fighting chance. Long odds, yes I know. If a mother is lying in her own piss and pill bottles while they’re slapping the kid she’s shunted out, telling him to look alive: likely the bastard is doomed. Kid born to the junkie is a junkie. He’ll grow up to be every- thing you don’t want to know, the rotten teeth and dead-zone eyes, the nuisance of locking up your tools in the garage so they don’t walk off, the rent-by-the-week motel squatting well back from the scenic high- way. This kid, if he wanted a shot at the finer things, should have got himself delivered to some rich or smart or Christian, nonusing type of mother. Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.
Me though, I was a born sucker for the superhero rescue. Did that line of work even exist, in our trailer-home universe? Had they all quit Smallville and gone looking for bigger action? Save or be saved, these are questions. You want to think it’s not over till the last page.
From the book: “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. Copyright © 2022 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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