By Paige Allen
Laurie Lico Albanese, St Martin's Press, 2022
Barbara Kingsolver, Harper, 2022
In 1850, two men published novels which became classics of the Anglophone literary canon: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. This year, two women released books which creatively engage with these texts while telling stories of their own. Laurie Lico Albanese’s Hester imagines what may have stimulated Hawthorne’s tale of moral hypocrisy and forbidden love set in Puritan Massachusetts, his only novel without known autobiographical inspiration. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead transports Dickens' story of an impoverished orphan’s coming-of-age to contemporary southern Appalachia. Both Albanese and Kingsolver craft stories from people and places cast aside, the ‘rotten little piece[s] of American pie,’ as Kingsolver writes, ‘that everybody wishes could just be, you know. Removed.’ Speaking with the voices of outsiders, Hester and Demon Copperhead ask: how much is dictated by the place we live in, the people we come from, and the past we carry with us?
Like The Scarlet Letter, Hester is a work of historical fiction centred on doomed romance. Wondering how Hester Prynne, the Hawthorne protagonist forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ for adultery, would tell her own story, Albanese reimagines Hester in Isobel Gamble, a Scottish woman who moves to Salem in 1829. Isobel, like Hester, finds herself living alone, waiting for the arrival of her husband, a doctor inspired by (though not as immediately villainous as) Hawthorne’s vengeful physician, Roger Chillingworth. Isobel, like Hester, is drawn to another man, not the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale but Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, a man as conflicted as his fictional analogue.
One of the book’s main merits is its successful conversion of Hawthorne’s fiction into dramatised history. Albanese suggests possible inspiration for Hester and Dimmesdale’s relationship in Isobel and Nat’s romance. Magnetic attraction and mutual loneliness pull them together, despite the inevitability of the relationship’s ruin: Isobel is a married foreigner, Nat a descendent of Salem’s ‘first families.’ Albanese increasingly reveals an awareness of the genre she is writing in, initially painting Nat as a Gothic, guilt-ridden hero before exposing his hollowness. The brooding artist, though alluring, is not all he is cracked up to be, too self-pitying and fearful to stand in his convictions and too self-centred to see in Isobel anything but himself. Albanese’s attention to women’s perspectives leaves her less sympathetic to Nat than Hawthorne is to Dimmesdale. ‘Is Nat a cruel man or a weak man?’ Isobel asks herself. ‘Perhaps he is both.’
Cruelty is commonplace in the world of Demon Copperhead, and Kingsolver draws attention to the cruelty of structural neglect – the uncaring foster system, the invisibility and prejudice experienced by rural communities, the capitalist roots of the opioid epidemic. Kingsolver humanises these experiences in her sweeping Bildungsroman, narrated by its titular character. An Appalachian Holden Caulfield, Demon tells his story in one of fiction’s most compelling voices. ‘First, I got myself born,’ he begins. Immediately, the reader can hear him speak; after a few chapters, his voice has the familiarity of an old friend’s. Kingsolver composes her lengthy novel in Appalachian vernacular. By retelling a ‘great English novel’ in accents and speech patterns stereotyped as ignorant, Kingsolver celebrates her dialect and the people who speak in it.
Kingsolver’s translation of David Copperfield into Appalachian vernacular is not only linguistic. At her launch event at Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction, she explained how she planned the novel with a spreadsheet divided into 64 chapters. For each chapter, she listed what happened in Dickens’ novel and, in the cell below, what would happen in hers, transposing nineteenth-century England into turn-of-the-millennium America. A ruthless headmaster at a boarding school becomes a tobacco farmer who uses his foster boys for their labour; a shoe factory transforms into a gas station with a meth lab in the back. Kingsolver signals her debt to Dickens with her tongue-in-cheek character names. The charming yet dishonourable James Steerforth is a football star named Sterling Ford, aka Fast Forward; the slimy embezzler Uriah Heep is Ryan Pyles, aka U-Haul (everyone in Lee County, Virginia, has a nickname).
Place is essential to Kingsolver’s novel. Lee County keeps time to the farming and football seasons. When you have nothing else, you have the land. ‘Leaving your family’s land would be like moving out of your own body,’ Kingsolver writes. Even the few who leave Lee County find themselves eventually pulled back. To those not from Demon’s world, it is the butt of the joke or invisible, its inhabitants stupid, backward caricatures or non-entities. Demon explains that everyone needs to ‘dump on somebody. Stepdad smacks mom, mom yells at the kid, kid finds the dog and kicks it. ... We’re the dog of America. Every make of person now has their proper nouns, except for some reason, us. Hicks, rednecks, not capitalised.’ Demon is Lee County personified; boys like him, he writes, are worth only ‘what work can be wrung out of us by a week’s end.’ Born in this place, on the floor of a trailer home to a single mother with a drug addiction, Demon assumes his destiny is set. If we’re all ‘marked from the get-out, win or lose,’ the ‘[k]id born to the junkie is a junkie.’
Yet, for all his cynicism, Demon admits he’s ‘a born sucker for the superhero rescue,’ even if superheroes seem to think only city people are worth saving. Kingsolver skilfully walks this line between dictated and self-created futures, showing how, in many ways, Demon and the people of Lee County are fated by their birthplace. Since the country’s beginnings, Appalachia has been plundered, its resources stripped, its workers abused. Kingsolver connects this history to the region’s current struggles, emphasising how this place was cursed not by God but men. The introduction of OxyContin to the county was a twisted strategic decision made to maximise monetary gain. If Lee County is considered at all, Kingsolver suggests, it is considered a place to be exploited.
Hester is also invested in the specifics of place, the weight of history and whether fate is inherited. For Isobel, Salem is ‘meant to be a new beginning, a place where the sharp scent of cinnamon and tea perfumed the air with hope.’ She quickly discovers, however, that though the New World is young, it is not without its ghosts. Salem’s Puritan past and infamous witch trials still shape societal expectations. Families descended from accuser and accused live side-by-side; Nat’s great-great-grandfather was a judge in the trials. While Nat carries a ‘curse of cruelty’ in his family name, Isobel takes her name from the persecuted. She is descended from Isobel Gowdie, a woman accused of witchcraft during Scotland’s own witch-hunting craze, an ordeal much bloodier and long-lasting than Salem’s.
Though Nat speaks of struggle, Isobel must actually face, like Demon, a world in which the cards are stacked against her. From her foremothers, she inherits not only her name but also synaesthesia, a sensory phenomenon that leads her to see letters and sounds as colours. As a woman with a condition not understood by nineteenth-century medicine, she must hide her abilities or risk accusations of witchcraft or madness. Moreover, as a poor Scottish woman, Isobel falls low on the hierarchy maintained by the ‘first families’ of Salem who claim superiority for having lived in New England since the 1600s. Her Black neighbours, Mercy and Zeke, are treated even worse. Although slavery is illegal in Massachusetts, merchants continue to profit from the slave trade, and slave catchers sweep through free Black communities, seeking high rewards for ‘returning’ people to the South. ‘I thought the New World was made by and for new people,’ Isobel considers. ‘But here in Salem it seems there is a long requisite of what a person must do, say, and be, in order to be truly American.’ Albanese does eventually point out some of the differences between these experiences of American-ness and race, but the book’s lingering attention on Nat and Isobel’s struggles for artistic ‘freedom’ begins to grate as more pressing issues of freedom emerge – for Isobel and, more importantly, for Zeke, Mercy and her children facing capture.
Demon Copperhead similarly reveals the narrow definition of ‘truly American’ some two centuries after Hester’s events. The rural, the uneducated, the poor – the addicts, the imprisoned, their children – these aren’t real Americans. Nor was Demon’s father, who was Melungeon, a word, Demon tells us, invented ‘for hating on certain people until they turned it around and said, Screw you, I’m taking this. These people were mixed, all the colours plus Cherokee and also Portuguese, which used to be its own thing, not white.’ These ‘dark-skinned, green-eyed people’ form an ethnic group found mostly in Lee County; Hancock and Hawkins Counties, Tennessee; and areas of Kentucky. ‘I’m not as white as some, but enough to say so,’ Demon writes. When there’s little else that gives you power, whiteness, or proximity to it, can be leveraged. As Demon’s teacher Mr. Armstrong says, ‘Certain pitiful souls around here see whiteness as their last asset that hasn’t been totaled or repossessed.’ Within this generally disenfranchised community, any difference in class, race or sexuality matters for some a great deal.
Demon Copperhead begins with an epigraph from David Copperfield: ‘It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.’ Albanese and Kingsolver both turn to stories of the past and places with storied pasts, looking from the present to the historically excluded. Hawthorne and Dickens write about outsiders, but Albanese and Kingsolver expand and reinterpret what it means to make lives on the margins.
For Albanese, the half-articulated feminism of Hawthorne’s Hester deserves full exploration. Isobel uses her needle as a weapon, connecting her to a long line of women dating back to Homer's Penelope who repurpose domestic tools against men. When Isobel fights back, she hears, ‘Women’s voices speaking to me of women’s work, women’s tasks, women’s friendships, women’s graves, women’s hope, and women’s strength.’ Albanese intersperses Isobel’s story with glimpses of other women, especially from the Scottish Witch Hunt and Salem Witch Trials. Though these diversions are not revolutionary when compared to other accounts of witch persecutions, fictional or otherwise, like those by Arthur Miller, Malcolm Gaskill, and Diane Purkiss, these digressions help Albanese achieve her goal of prioritising women’s perspectives. Women’s voices are historically silenced, and their labour is largely undervalued, so their histories are left to writers to imagine.
Kingsolver also champions unsung histories, those less-than-pretty pieces of American pie. Most people turn away from the ‘junkie’ and blame them for their addiction; most live unaware of the children shuffled through a foster system driven by monetary interest. But, as Demon learns, ‘a good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it.’ Albanese and Kingsolver understand this advice, creating books that feel like conversations with, rather than adaptations of, their Victorian inspirations. Pushing back against historical biases and silences, these authors take old novels to unexpected places where new meanings can emerge. While Albanese’s Hester works to tell Isobel’s story on her own terms, beyond the real or fictionalised Hawthorne and his writings, Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead simultaneously clings more closely to and soars beyond its source material. Borrowing form and function from Dickens, Kingsolver pens a rallying cry for the children discarded and dying. The resulting novel is a classic in its own right, a tale that leverages the past, both Victorian and recent, to impact present attitudes, all while telling a gripping and poignant story.
PAIGE ALLEN is a former ORB Editor who studied Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at St Hugh’s College. She now lives in New York City and misses the UK’s public transportation. And digestives.
Art by Ben Beechener