It’s a brave writer who takes on a retelling of Dickens, and of David Copperfield, the most personal of his novels, at that. And yet the American author Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead – which transposes this very English, quasi-autobiographical Bildungsroman to her own home territory of Appalachia – feels in many ways like the book she was born to write.
The idealism and concern with social justice that are characteristic of Kingsolver’s worldview find their natural counterpart in Dickens’s impassioned social criticism. While the task of modernising his novel is complicated by the fact that mores have shifted so radically since the mid-19th century – “immorality”, AKA extramarital sex? Who cares? – the ferocious critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children is as pertinent as ever.
Kingsolver’s hero Damon Fields, known as Demon and nicknamed Copperhead for his red hair, is born to a drug-using teenage single mother in a trailer in Lee County, Virginia. Even in this deprived neighbourhood they stand out by being almost destitute, living between a coal camp “and a settlement people call Right Poor”. Since his mother is in and out of rehab, Demon is partly raised by the sprawling, warm-hearted Peggot clan. It’s all there in Dickens: the weak, infantile mother, ripe for abuse; the dead father and the disciplinarian boyfriend turned merciless stepfather; the bad odds against which no child stands a chance – and also the outsiders, some loving and others less so, who offer only a limited form of help.
Dickens would have agreed wholeheartedly with Demon’s verdict that “a kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing”. If you’re familiar with David Copperfield, then the arc of Demon Copperhead will hold few surprises. Demon becomes a casualty of the “monster-truck mud rally of child services”: case workers who don’t read his file; foster parents who are only in it for the security cheque. Where David is packed off to gloomy Salem House, run by the sadistic Mr Creakle, Demon is quite literally farmed out to “this big old gray-looking house, like Amityville”, owned by a tobacco farmer called Crickson. While there he befriends two other boys, an unadulteratedly Dickensian Tommy Waddles – complete with his prototype’s habit of sketching skeletons – and the charismatic, pill-popping school quarterback Sterling Ford, known as Fast Forward for his prowess on the field. With his “pharm parties” and status as football aristocracy, Sterling is a seductive recasting of the poisonous “gentleman” by birth, James Steerforth.
After enduring being fostered by the pathologically insolvent McCobbs, Demon finds a home with Coach Winfield and his tomboy daughter Agnes, who goes by “Angus”. Under Winfield’s tutelage he becomes a rising school football star – until an injury nudges his recreational drug habit into full-blown opioid addiction. David’s struggle to find an emotional balance and a purpose in life becomes Demon’s battle to achieve sobriety and to transcend the failure of those around him “to see the worth of boys like me, beyond what work can be wrung out of us by a week’s end. Farm field, battlefield, football field.”
Kingsolver knows, as Demon says, that “a good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it”, and a large part of the pleasure lies in seeing what she does with her source material. As a narrator, Demon is every bit as likable and nuanced as David, and the humour and pathos of his voice are enhanced by a slangy southern spin. Elsewhere the update is less successful. Dickens’s Micawbers are feckless but mean well; Kingsolver’s McCobbs are merely exploitative. In an interlude that’s short on subtlety, they make Demon sleep in their laundry-cum-kennel, put him to work on a rubbish dump, even steal his wages. But Kingsolver’s real masterstroke is to draw a parallel between the “inborn power of attraction” that socially superior but toxic people like Steerforth have for David, and the quick fix that pills seem to offer Demon and almost everyone else in his dead-end world, including his waif-like girlfriend and fellow addict Dori and Mrs Peggot’s granddaughter Emmy, who falls for Fast Forward’s charm.
In David Copperfield, Agnes Wickfield – David’s “good angel” and second wife – is eminently sober, a word that has an entirely different connotation here. “Angus” Winfield not only has sobriety in the modern sense (she’s dead set against drugs of any kind), but also possesses the human qualities that the angelic Agnes singularly lacks. “There’s much to be said,” muses Damon, “for lying around with a person on beanbags, firing popcorn penalties at each other for offside fart violations.” Take that, Victorian Angel in the House. Angus is a living and appealing alternative, farts and all, to the Doris and Emmys in a way that Dickens’s Agnes never quite manages to be.
David Copperfield wonders “whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life”. Demon Copperhead poses a different question: what is heroism, anyway? When you’re a child born into a life without choices, this powerful reworking suggests, being a hero sometimes consists simply of surviving against the odds.
• Elizabeth Lowry’s new novel The Chosen is published by Riverrun. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.