75 pages 2 hours read

Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Demon Copperhead is a piece of literary fiction by celebrated author Barbara Kingsolver. Published in 2022 by Harper Collins publishers, Demon Copperhead is a New York Times Best Seller and a selection for Oprah’s Book Club.

Set in Lee County, Virginia, Demon Copperhead uses the first-person point of view of its titular character to juxtapose the world’s beauty and ugliness. The story exposes the systemic failures of American institutions but celebrates the resiliency of the individual spirit. Kingsolver bases her novel on Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) to connect the present to the past, to combine cultures, and to adapt Dickens’s mission of using literature to hold a mirror up to society.

Kingsolver is an American novelist whose books regularly make the New York Times Best Seller list. A nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Kingsolver is the winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the National Humanities Medal.

Content warning: This study guide contains summary and analysis of drug addiction, death by overdose, physical and emotional abuse, sexual exploitation, and anti-gay slurs that are present in the source text.

Plot Summary

Demon is born in a small town in Virginia while his mother is passed out from drug and alcohol use. His neighbor, Mrs. Peggot, assists the birth, and when he is born in his amniotic sac, Mrs. Peggot declares that he has good luck and will not die by drowning. Demon’s father died before his birth, and due to his mother’s addictions, Demon spends most of his childhood with the Peggots. They have a grandson, nicknamed Maggot, who is Demon’s age. Maggot lives with his grandparents full-time because his mother is in prison for the attempted murder of her boyfriend. Maggot and Demon are best friends, and Demon wishes he could stay with the Peggots forever. His mother tries to remain sober, but when she begins dating a tough man nicknamed Stoner, it further destabilizes Demon’s already insecure life.

When Demon is 10 years old, the Peggots bring him on a family trip to Knoxville. One of Mrs. Peggot’s daughters, Jane, is a nurse with a stable income and nice apartment. Jane takes care of her dead brother’s daughter, Emmy. Demon initially finds Emmy difficult to get along with, but they develop a friendship when he helps her conquer her fears of sharks while they’re at the aquarium. This day at the aquarium is transformative for Demon, who has never seen the ocean but fantasizes about water.

When Demon returns from Knoxville, he discovers that his mother has married Stoner. Now the head of the household, Stoner derides and humiliates Demon and his mother. He forbids Demon from seeing Maggot, calling Maggot a “faggot.” Stoner becomes physically and emotionally abusive, and Demon fights back. The stress of her marriage drives Demon’s mother back to alcohol and drugs. Demon calls an ambulance when he finds her passed out. At the hospital, the Department of Social Services approaches him. Stoner has accused the Peggots of sexually abusing Demon, so he cannot stay with them while his mother is in rehab. Instead, his social worker, Miss Barks, arranges for him to stay on a farm owned by a widower named Crickson. Crickson takes in foster boys when he needs extra money and assistance. Demon has chores on the farm, but Crickson feeds him well and Demon can still attend the same school. Crickson has three other foster children: Swap-Out, a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome; Tommy, whom Crickson mocks for being overweight but who is nonetheless very kind; and Fast Forward, a charming high school athlete who collects money from the boys and provides them with drugs.

On Demon’s 11th birthday, his mother dies from an overdose of OxyContin. The Peggots (now cleared of charges) bring Demon to Knoxville for the holiday break. He is buoyed by Aunt June’s kindness and Emmy’s compassion toward him. He falls in love with Emmy and is excited that June has decided to move back to Lee County. June has officially adopted Emmy, giving Demon the idea that the Peggots could adopt him. He asks Mrs. Peggot, but she says she’s done taking care of kids; she is too old and unwell.

Demon is moved into a foster home. The McCobb family consists of a married couple and their four children, all under the age of seven. The McCobbs are poor but want to keep up an appearance of wealth and savviness. They take Demon in for the money from the foster system, but they force Demon to sleep in the laundry room and barely feed him. Mr. McCobb works with Stoner to find a job for Demon so that Demon can contribute to the household. Demon gets a job sorting through trash behind a market that is also a front for a meth lab.

The McCobbs don’t take care of Demon, so he becomes unkempt as well as grieving and resentful. The kids at school avoid him, judging him for his poverty and dirty appearance. Demon’s self-esteem plummets. When the McCobbs’ car is repossessed, they have no choice but to move away. Demon runs away with the money he earned from his trash sorting job. He hitchhikes to Tennessee, hoping to find his father’s mother. At a truck stop, a sex worker steals his money, but he manages to find his grandmother, Betsy Woodall.

Betsy raises little girls who need homes, but does not participate in the foster system, which she believes is broken. She also takes care of her brother Dick, who looks weak but has a strong intellect. Betsy doesn’t want to take Demon in because she’s sworn off boys and men who aren’t Dick. However, Betsy also refuses to allow Demon to return to the foster care system and finds the husband of one of her former foster daughters. Though the woman died of cancer, her husband has a stable job and takes care of their child in Lee County. He agrees to take in Demon, and Demon moves back to Lee County to live with the celebrated high school football coach, Coach Winfield.

Winfield’s house is enormous, and Demon has his own bedroom; his only job is to do well in school. Winfield’s daughter, Angus, is in the eighth grade and dresses like a boy; she is intelligent and opinionated. Demon starts doing better in school thanks to his counselor, Mr. Armstrong, who sees potential for Demon to join the Gifted and Talented program. Winfield also thinks Demon could be a star football player. Demon is worried that Winfield will eventually make him leave, and despite his newfound stability, he’s uncomfortable with U-Haul, a man who runs errands for Winfield. Demon also reunites with the Peggots—Maggot has started wearing make-up and styling himself as a goth—and with Emmy and Aunt June, who have moved back to Lee County.

As Demon moves through middle school, he gets accustomed to his new and happy life. In high school, he becomes a star player on the football team. He runs into Fast Forward, who takes him out partying. A girl named Rose tells Demon horrifying stories about Fast Forward’s violent abuse.

Demon meets a girl named Dori who stays out of school to take care of her ailing father. Demon instantly falls in love with her, but an injury in a football game curtails his joy. He’s prescribed various medications that are made with OxyContin and becomes addicted. After the homecoming dance, Dori introduces him to Fentanyl through injection, and they have sex for the first time while high.

Dori’s father dies and Demon moves in with her. They start living for their addictions, barely holding down jobs to buy drugs. Demon wants space from Dori but can’t imagine breaking up with her. He starts hanging out with Tommy, who helps him anonymously publish comic strips in the local newspaper; these feature a superhero named Red Neck who saves the people of Appalachia from the societal problems they face. The comics are so popular that Demon receives an official contract to publish them. Just as Dori’s addiction dips to a new low, she reveals that she’s pregnant.

Fast Forward and Emmy had begun dating but have now broken up. He got her involved in his drug dealing business, forcing her to have sex with his bosses in Atlanta. June and Demon drive to Atlanta to retrieve Emmy, whom they find half-naked, emaciated, and passed out in a random house. On the way back, Demon and June have a serious conversation about Demon’s life, and she reveals something Demon never knew: His father died in an accidental drowning at a place called Devil’s Bathtub.

Dori has a miscarriage and dies from an overdose shortly afterward.

On a rainy night, Demon, Maggot, and Emmy’s ex-boyfriend Hammer, all high, find Fast Forward at Devil’s Bathtub. Hammer has his gun with him, which spooks Fast Forward, who jumps off the waterfall to get away. Instead, he hits the rocky ground and dies. Hammer, wanting to help Fast Forward, goes into the turbulent water and drowns. Maggot is charged as an accomplice in Hammer’s death and sentenced to juvie for two years, where he has no choice but to seek treatment for his meth addiction. Demon accepts June’s offer to find him a spot in rehab and then a halfway house.

Demon spends three and a half years in Knoxville, getting and staying sober. He returns to Lee County because his high school art teacher, Mrs. Annie, offers to help him write a book proposal for a graphic novel. By the time he finishes the novel, Maggot and his mother are out of prison, sober, and living together. Emmy also went to rehab and is in her own halfway house, happy and pursuing dance. Demon reunites with Angus, whom he realizes he loves. Together, they finally drive to the ocean.

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