I’ve had mixed success with Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I liked The Laguna, gave up on Prodigal Summer half-way through and bailed on the audio book of Flight Behaviour after ten minutes. But the friend who loaned me this book told me I’d love it. And I did. It’s long and sprawling, rich in characters and events and told in a voice that’s unforgettably moving and funny and tragic and real. It’s a re-telling of Dicken’s David Copperfield, and like Dickens, Kingsolver is unashamedly polemical about what poverty and abuse does to children. Is it too soon to say this is the best book I’ve read all year?
Damon Fields is born to a drug-using teenage mother in Lee County, Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachians. There’s poverty – and then there’s destitution; with Damon’s mother in and out of rehab and no family to help, he’s on his own. But he’s not. The warm and generous Peggott clan, who own the trailer Damon and his mother live in, take him under their wing and in spite of everything, his childhood is almost happy. But when his mother marries, Damon gains a merciless stepfather and his life takes a dive. As does his mother’s. Controlled and abused, she overdoses, and Damon is shunted into the care – I should write ‘care’! – of the welfare system. He becomes part of the underage labour crew of an elderly farmer, and then is used as a source of income by a fecklessly poor middle-class family. As Damon says, ‘a kid is a terrible thing to be’.
The catastrophic failings of the services and individuals meant to protect and care for children are Kingsolver’s initial targets; in the next stage of Damon’s life the American medical system comes under fire. He finds a home with Coach Winfield and his daughter Agnes – who goes by ‘Angus’ – and becomes a high school football star. He’s badly injured, and predictably, given the profit-driven nature of medicine in the US, he falls between the cracks and becomes addicted to OxyContin. I happened to have recently read Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, so I was aware of the ruthless exploitation with which Perdue Pharma deliberately targeted poor communities in places like Lee County.
At the end, however, there’s happiness for Damon. Rarely for me (I don’t usually like a tome) I wished Damon Copperhead was longer. I missed him!
There are so many adjectives I could use to praise this book – absorbing, entertaining, shocking, tear-jerking, hilarious, and more… But I think perhaps the best thing I can say is that it enlarged my heart and mind, which I guess is what reading is supposed to do. Kingsolver’s novel is generous and attentive to a group who could be dismissed. Who often are, called called white trash or trailer trash or hillbillies. Here, in Australia, rednecks or bogans. She doesn’t shy away from ugliness, but embraces the loveable, the complex and the human.