Demon Copperhead (real name Damon Field) is a fatherless 10 year old boy living in a trailer in Lee County in the 1990s with his twenty something mother who stacks shelves in Walmart and spends intermittent time in and out of rehab. This means that age 10 Demon has to be the adult in the room, but even so life is OK. Demon’s best friend Maggot, scion of clan Peggott, lives next door and the two boys run wild in the woods together until one day addiction and a disastrous remarriage by Demon’s mother reduce him to penury.
I might say penury of Dickensian proportions. Demon Copperhead is Barbara Kingsolver’s powerful retelling of the story of David Copperfield.
Demon is a brilliant narrator of his own story. He is angry and truly who can blame him. We are angry right along with him. When he goes on the run, hitch hikes for hours through the night in an attempt to find his grand-mother (all he has is a name – Betsy Woodall – and a place called Murder Valley in Nashville) none of the drivers that pick him up seem to ask why a ten-year old boy is travelling alone in the middle of the night. As readers we accept this, partly because Kingsolver’s writing is so good but also because we live in a world where this is only too imaginable. Children across all nations are living in dire poverty and neglect; being exploited every day.
Kingsolver says “That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Demon… the lost boys and lost girls, this generation of kids that feel like nobody wants them.”
In a recent interview in the Financial Times( 25.1.23), Kingsolver said she searched for years for a way into the story of the opioid crisis. Appalachia – the region where she lives ‘became the centre of Purdue Pharma’s opioid assault on America.’
Kingsolver wants us to realise:
The entire history of the structural poverty of this region is what nobody understands. Demon Copperhead is drenched with historical context: how the mining companies fought tooth and nail to keep other employers out of Appalachia and kept the education system poor to produce workers with no bigger hopes than to work in the mines.
Therefore can we venerate Mr. Dickens for highlighting the horrors of Victorian England and go on our way pleased with our superior, liberal minded, humanistic, peaceful, caring society? Hah!
The continued relevance of Dickens’ story (first published in 1850) is tragic. Yes it’s the USA in 1990s; yes it’s oxycontin instead of gin. Can’t you almost see some new century Hogarth reading Kingsolver’s book in despair, reaching for his drawing materials and thinking, this again? really?
Today, the author says:
Appalachian communities are still living with the fallout of oxycontin; there are homeless children wandering about with a few belongings in rucksacks directly as a result of addiction and death in their families directly caused by Purdue Pharma.
Last week I posted that I was hoping to get back and see some films again. Having not been to the cinema since forever, I have been twice this week.
The first film I saw starred Cate Blanchett in her Oscar nominated role as conductor in Todd Field’s Tár. Blanchett excels in the central role delivering a script which was written for her.
Her character, a world class conductor and musician, specialises in withering put downs with an anti-woke agenda ‘Don’t be so quick to take offence’ she tells one Juillard student, ‘if Bach’s talent can be reduced to his religion, ethnicity and gender then so can yours!’ Apparently that line got applause when it was first screened.
Tár is resident conductor of the Berlin Phil whose virtuoso performances extend beyond her ability to conduct Mahler’s 5th. A ‘U-haul lesbian’ as she terms herself, she is in a relationship with the concert master of the same orchestra; they have a child together.
There is a complex plot and multiple characters but most of it concerns a shady and ill explained relationship in Tár’s past, and a build up of pressures which come with being top of the international music circuit. It is suggested that there is a possible history of sexual abuse, although this isn’t clear. There appear to be incriminating emails.
No thespian does a meltdown quite like Blanchett – remember her in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s tribute to Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire? Tár is a better film for my money. But for all Mr. Rune and I spent nearly three hours being mesmerised by Cate Blanchett, we left the cinema wondering exactly what the film was trying to say. Either wrongdoing had occurred in which case disciplinary action had to be taken, or wrongdoing had not occurred in which case the maestro may have been the victim of a set up. But unless there is a lot that I missed, I’m still not sure which was the more likely.
The second film I saw starred Olivia Colman, in Empire of Light. Written and Directed by Sam Mendes, this film is set in 1980s Britain in a coastal town which a friend tells me is probably Margate – against a background of race riots and skinhead violence in the UK. The plot concerns a lonely cinema manager (Colman) who believes she has found love with a new young employee at the Empire. The film progresses painfully for both parties and each does his or her best to support the other through some horrific events.
Colman is excellent but the real star of the film is an (apparently) abandoned art deco building that serves as half of the old Empire cinema. There go the memories, the red carpeted stairways, huge draped velvet curtains hanging in front of the screen, the sense of occasion which a visit to such a grand building entailed. Remember the paper tickets which got torn in half? Oh and the sweets. Always the odious buckets of popcorn (which have never gone away), but remember those lovely, red boxes of Maltesers? 20 pence.
This film is one hell of a trip down memory lane but not really in good way. It depends how much you want to be reminded of eighties Britain and how worried you are that we might be heading right back there.