It took a long time for Kingsolver to be able to write a book that goes right at the hardest parts of her home. The notion that everybody in Appalachia is hanging out on their porch, eating cornbread and drinking moonshine is certainly a stereotype, but there is some truth to it.

By Jody DiPerna 

Barbara Kingsolver lives where she set her novel, “Demon Copperhead,” on the Virginia side of the map where the state lines of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia form an outline that mimics Pittsburgh’s rivers. She grew up just across the state line in eastern Kentucky and, though she has lived all over the world, this part of the planet will always be home for her.

“I think that we imprint on the landscape in a way that is pretty indelible — the place that feels like home. So that’s this place for me. And for a lot of us. I’m just so glad to be able to show it to people and for people to be proud,” Kingsolver said of her master work.

Her narrator Demon grows up in the part of Appalachia that people first think of when they hear Appalachia, a place of towering tree-packed hills, and hollows made of rivers and fast-running creeks. It is mostly rural and has more than its fair share of poverty, but the specificity and exquisite care Kingsolver takes with her writing reveals this place to the reader anew.

Kingsolver beckons the reader to come along for this ride — it won’t be what you expect.

“Assuming you’ve ended up someplace you’re proud to be. And if not, easier to forget the whole thing, period. So this is going to be option three, not proud, not forgetting. Not easy,” Demon says.

Through this tough, damaged boy, the reader is able to feel the failings and heartbreaks of the region, as well as its community and resolve. Kingsolver creates room for radical love and acceptance of a place.

The overwhelming response to her novel, the fact that it spent 54 weeks on the bestseller list and continues to find its way to new readers, buoys the writer’s spirit. On top of all of that, she won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her stupendous work of literature that is also a riveting page-turner. This finely detailed book will break your heart and make you laugh out loud. It was also a real coming home for Kingsolver herself, in both a spiritual and literal sense.

“What’s so touching for me is that I hear from so many people saying ‘you gave me new eyes for looking at this,’” she said.

It took a long time for Kingsolver to be able to write a book that goes right at the hardest parts of her home. The notion that everybody in Appalachia is hanging out on their porch, eating cornbread and drinking moonshine is certainly a stereotype, but there is some truth to it.

“I mean, I have done all of those things in the last month,” Kingsolver said.

When the region is reduced to nothing but those simplistic ideas, excluding all of the other things it is, it flattens this most mountainous of places in regrettable ways.

“It’s been a frustration for–well–for my whole life. I didn’t know I was a hillbilly until I left Kentucky and went to college,” she said. “I spent the early part of my adulthood trying to swallow my accent and change my presentation.”

As a young writer, Kingsolver sensed the dismissal of country folk in the form of literary gatekeeping. She said that cultural standards and cache are set by and for cities, so that even writers like Wendell Berry were not taken seriously.

“All I could do was keep going. And just hold on to the fact that I’m not writing for prizes,” she said.

“I’ve never been cool.”

Kingsolver may not have been writing for prizes, but she has created quite the catalog of work — 10 works of fiction, three nonfiction books and two poetry collections. This latest is a re-telling of the Charles Dickens classic, “David Copperfield.” Dickens was shining a light into areas deliberately ignored, overlooked or dismissed — children born into poverty, children on their own, children in foster care or orphanages. He was also trying to tell a really good story.

“Copperhead” pulls off the same trick, but in the modern milieu. Demon is a child born into poverty, father dead with a single mother who works a low-paying job and struggles with substance use disorder. Demon becomes a ward of the state, much like Dickens’ David.

Ever since she first read “A Christmas Carol” when she was 11-years old, she has loved Dickens and during her writing of “Copperhead,” she felt his spirit sitting at her elbow teaching her even at this stage of her career.

“The heart of this was coming to the understanding that it had to be told from a kid’s point of view,” Kingsolver said.

“That was a gift from Charles Dickens. When I had that huge lightbulb moment to do this as my David Copperfield and let this kid become the hero of his own story, the narrator of the story, then all the rest came. I don’t want to make it sound easy — I had to work at it.”

His voice, his distinct beats and diction bring Demon to life in moving and impactful ways. These are subtle things, but Kingsolver said some of Demon’s voice is her own. The way he says, “on accident” rather than “by accident,” for example.

“That’s my first language,” she said. It comes back in all its rich idiosyncrasies when she’s at home talking to her neighbors in Appalachian Virginia.

Like the puppeteer writing his story, Demon himself is an inimitable story-teller, never shying away from the truth and using humor to express his righteous anger. He grabs the reader’s attention from the very first sentence, “First, I got myself born.”

“It’s our language,” Kingsolver said of Demon’s verbal tics and everyman poetry.

“That voice is essential to get you through this long, dark, really hard, scary story. I knew that you had to have a voice that entertained you and you also had to have a kid that you love. You have to adore this kid to stick with him. You have to be rooting for him.”

Demon is outraged by many things, mostly structural poverty, even if he never names it directly; the ire directed towards a cruel and unfair system is at least partially Kingsolver herself.

“I have plenty of teenage boy in me,” she said.

Balancing a deep love of place with a clear-eyed approach to its failings is the only way to take back the power to move forward, according to Kingsolver.

“I’ll put it this way, for half of my life, and probably most of my writing career, I’ve had in me this wish or dream of writing the great Appalachian novel that really puts everything in context that says to people, both inside and outside the region — yes, we have problems. This is where they came from. We didn’t make this happen to ourselves. It was done to us,” she said.

“It just seemed too big. I suppose I also carried enough internalized shame that we all get in us growing up here, that felt like, nobody’s gonna listen, nobody’s gonna hear it.”

Kingsolver has made them listen, though. Her homeplace is a place ravaged by a whole confluence of man-made disaster — ecological devastation, the opioid epidemic and harmful  misrepresentations of the place she loves.

This article has been republished by the generosity of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

Jody DiPerna lives, reports and writes from her home in Pittsburgh. She is an award winning
journalist and one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Currently,
she is researching a book about the importance of reading, writing and literary life in Appalachia for West Virginia University Press. She conducted one of her finest interviews in a rural laundromat.