A Demon Copperhead

There are good writers in this world. They weave stories, and sometimes, they leave something behind for the careful reader, which sticks and gnaws. A life nugget. The twist that surprises. Or in the spirit of Russell Crowe from Gladiator lore, they demand one be entertained. But then, there are the authors who stand the test of time. Visit the Project Gutenberg site, and you’ll easily find Shakespeare, Alcott, and Dumas.

And then there is Dickens. He wrote incredible tales but also brought attention to society’s underlying evil, bubbling under the surface. Money. Abuse. The lost children. Yes, David Copperfield was published in 1850, but these challenges continue to linger. The story follows the life of the eponymous character, David Copperfield, from his birth to his adulthood.

Similar to my post on Gatsby, I finished this work in high school—a challenging read. For brevity, David’s mother marries an abusive man. Copperfield is sent to boarding school where he endures hardship, mistreatment, and abuse. After his mother’s death, he works at a factory to support himself. Through the tale, David experiences love, loss, and betrayal but ultimately finds happiness and fulfillment in his career as a writer and in his marriage to his childhood friend, Agnes. Autobiographical in nature, the book carries a number of themes including the struggle for independence and the cruelty of poverty and class inequality. It is considered the author’s most personal masterpiece.

Last year, Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote the Poisonwood Bible, reimagined the story for modern times. Instead of David, young Demon is displaced in foster care after his mother relapses in rural Appalachia. Similar to Dickens’ masterpiece, this is a challenging read. It started slow for me. A train wreck where I wanted close the book and walk away, but the characters compelled me to finish. Drugs abound. One addiction to the next, kids stealing opiates from their grandparent’s medicine cabinet to share at parties on dirt gravel roads. The elderly begging in the street or buying lab-produced drugs. Coaches ensuring the high school football team keeps a fresh supply of painkillers to blunt the pain. Doctors peddling drugs in a serial style, hallowing out their communities. And, of course, the pharmaceutical companies gladly provide them to hit sales targets and pay bonuses to executives.

This is a bleak book.

And I’m not even describing the underground markets or trafficking. Although one could cast this tale off as fiction, a hint of realism clawed at the back of my mind. As much as I wanted to say this couldn’t happen in my local area, I could see it. Great writers make their protagonists real, believable. As Lord Byron wrote:

‘Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,

Giving Kingsolver credit, I rushed to finish the last few pages. When I think events cannot get worse, more happen. Characters you love struggle. Bleak upon bleak.

Yet, despite the challenges, hope remains.

Demon presses onward, working through his own addiction. And that’s what makes this reimagining special. I won’t spoil the ending. But in the real-life version of the original, Charles Dickens becomes the most well-loved author of his generation. Possibly, all generations. The Christmas Carol. Great Expectations. And yes, David Copperfield.

And that hint of hope, the drug that pushes the flywheel of life further almost gave me a small sense of security. I remember the glory years. How could back road parties and sports be any different? Like most parents, I’m subscribed to the text notification system at school. The buzz came.

And I found out the world is indeed different.

Things do change. In the email from our school administrators, a student purchased a drug between classes, took a tiny pill, and immediately overdosed. As the school carries medication to combat the effects, the kid was saved by an administrator on-site. Of course, due to confidentiality, further details weren’t provided, nor should they be. I remain sad for the family.

And, as a parent, this gave me pause. Certain events hit you with a stone hammer.

When my youngling came home later that afternoon, I hugged him tightly and refused to let go. Yeah, he thought I was weird, but this is the world we live in these days. These drugs are different. One dose and the universe tips into the upside down. Sadly, we created this and distributed it legally. Big Pharma, this is on you. Only then, a black market emerged.

So, we are here. I have few answers. What could make a difference? In these times, I turn to the Lorax. Why not? It’s not Dickens caliber, but the words resonate beyond the environmental message. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. For now, try to do what I did. Pick up the phone. Call your member of Congress. And local politicians too. Demand a new world.

And, say thank you to the teachers, hospital staff, and law enforcement who fight this scourge daily. I’m not sure how they sleep at night. This quote from the book’s acknowledgments stuck with me, “For the kids who wake up hungry in those dark places every day, who’ve lost their families to poverty and pain pills, whose caseworkers keep losing their files, who feel invisible, or wish they were: this book is for you.”


  • This originally appeared in my newsletter weeks back. If you haven’t already, subscribe.
  • I do encourage everyone to read this book. I’d link to Amazon but a simple search will get you there.
  • As for the picture, it’s only a quick picture of my own copy sitting on a desk made from wood struck by a bolt of lightning.