“A good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead
Have you read Demon Copperhead? It’s a popular contemporary novel by Barbara Kingsolver that a lot of folks have been talking about over the past couple years. In 2023, Kingsolver received a Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her poignant coming-of-age tale of a spunky, resilient, boy named Damon (nick-named Demon). Kingsolver shows the magic of childhood, community, and love, alongside the ache of drug addiction, poverty, and abuse that Damon and his friends face as they grow up in rural Appalachia in the 90s.
At Love146, our vision is the end of child trafficking and exploitation. We’ve provided survivor care services to over a thousand children, including over 800 here in the U.S. We’re committed to not only journeying with youth who have experienced trafficking victimization but also preventing it from occurring in the first place. Our prevention education curriculum, Not a Number, has been implemented throughout the United States, including in Appalachia. Because society’s picture of trafficking is often narrow (e.g. children being kidnapped and chained up), many of the survivors we’ve worked with don’t initially identify that what they’ve experienced is trafficking victimization. We want to help society mature the conversation about trafficking, so we can deepen our solutions and more youth like Damon can get the help they need and deserve.
Though we’re glad to see realistic depictions of trafficking in Demon Copperhead, the phrase human trafficking isn’t found. This is understandable as the story is set in the 90s and the term didn’t become common until the following decades. However, as thousands of people read and discuss this book, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to name the 4 cases of trafficking we see in Demon Copperhead. (We’ve included questions for book clubs or individual readers throughout.)
Some quick definitions if helpful:
Child Labor is a form of work that is likely to be hazardous to the health and/or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development of children and can interfere with their education.
Labor Trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to provide involuntary labor or services.
Adult Sex Trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to induce someone to exchange a sex act for something of value.
Child Sex Trafficking is the exchanging of anything of value for any sex act with a minor.
Note: from here on, this article contains spoilers.
Risk Factors & Protective Factors
Trafficking is rarely the first thing to go wrong in a child’s life. Damon and his friends Maggot and Emmy face many of the same vulnerabilities that we see in the lives of the youth that we serve, including poverty, food insecurity, domestic violence, deceased and incarcerated parents, involvement in the child welfare system, running away, negative self-image, and drug addiction.
But Kindsolver also shows many protective factors that prove vital in the kids’ journeys (as we also see with many of the children we work with). The most obvious of these protective factors is the presence of safe and caring adults. From the day Damon is born, Mr. & Mrs. Peggot are there. The Peggots are concerned and invested neighbors who check in on Damon and his single teen mother. They remain consistent in Damon’s life as they are able – offering love, food, and emotional support. The Peggots also take in and raise their grandson, Maggot, Damon’s best friend.
Then there’s Aunt June, Emmy’s adoptive mother. Aunt June advocates for Damon to his foster parent when she fears Damon will become addicted to recklessly prescribed painkillers. When Emmy goes missing, Aunt June tracks her down and brings her home. It’s Aunt June who facilitates getting Damon and Emmy into drug rehab.
“June was not one to give up on people, ever. And if Martha had any way of getting in touch with Emmy, she needed to tell her that June still loved the heck out of her and wanted her home.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead
Finally, there’s Mr. Armstrong and Ms Annie, the teachers who see and believe in Damon, calling out his skill and intelligence. Ms. Annie helps Damon write a contract for his comic strips so that he won’t be taken advantage of in another workplace. Together these teachers provide judgment-free counsel, they positively change the way Damon sees his worth, and they demonstrate a healthy relationship between two adults.
People like this exist in every community and they’re making a difference. We need more people like this to really be there for youth. Sadly, even with these protective factors, trafficking and exploitation can still happen…
Some ways you can engage as a group or individual:
Referencing the information on the Love146 resource page, what other risk factors or protective factors do you notice in Demon Copperhead? Consider other characters, such as Tommy, Swap-Out, Angus, and Dori.
Who are some people or organizations in your community who are showing up for youth in a meaningful way? How can you partner with them or be supportive of the youth in your life?
Help spread credible information about child trafficking by printing and posting Love146’s Awareness Poster on community bulletin boards in your neighborhood.
#1 Damon is labor trafficked by Creaky
Damon’s first foster placement is at Creaky Farm. Here Damon and three other boys in foster care are forced to work the tobacco fields, sometimes missing school, becoming sick from toxins, and being beaten for making mistakes. Because they are under the age of 18 and being forced to provide involuntary commercial labor, this is a situation of child labor trafficking. When the harvest season is over and Mr. Creaky has no more need of him, Damon is placed in a new foster home, in which we see the second case of trafficking.
#2 Demon is labor trafficked by Mr. McCobb
Damon’s next foster placement is with the McCobb family. Mr. McCobb’s primary reason for becoming a foster parent is the monthly check from the Department of Social Services. The check is supposed to cover the expense of caring for Damon, but instead, the McCobbs pocket the money, telling Damon he’ll have to pull his own weight. Mr. McCobb arranges a job for Damon, sorting through garbage at the local drop-off. Damon works the hazardous job and is forced to hand the money over to Mr. McCobb, supposedly for safekeeping; however, Damon eventually finds out that the McCobbs were using his earnings to help pay their rent. Because Damon is under 18 and his caretaker is forcing him into labor and keeping the earnings, this is another case of child labor trafficking.
#3 Maggot is sex trafficked
Maggot’s situation only receives a brief mention in the book as Damon recounts a conversation with Emmy. “She told me things I didn’t want to know, like who he was having sex with, to procure [drugs]. Jesus. Maggot. This overgrown kid that barely had outgrown Legos and Avengers.” Assuming Maggot is under the age of 18 here, this would be a case of child sex trafficking – the exchange of anything of value (including drugs) for a sex act with a minor. Love146 has worked with hundreds of youth who have been exploited in this way. Whether it’s in exchange for money, housing, food, drugs, or any other number of other things, predators look for children with vulnerabilities and take advantage of them. LGBTQ+ youth, like Maggot, are especially vulnerable to exploitation due to higher rates of being rejected or kicked out by their families. Kids in situations like Maggot’s need intervention and support.
When you read this part of the book, did you know that this situation was child trafficking? Even if the youth appears to be choosing this exchange of their own free will or to have their basic needs met, it still falls under the legal definition of trafficking. There is no such thing as a child prostitute.
#4 Emmy is sex trafficked by Fast Forward
With Emmy, we see a more stereotypical form of trafficking. She gets mixed up with Fast Forward, a man who manipulates her into having sex with others as part of his illicit drug business, as is revealed in Damon’s conversation with Rose.
“She mentioned various technical things, making it sound like Fast Forward was a businessman to be admired, making his smart moves to get promoted. Part of his business sense involved using Emmy for his lure.”
Eventually, Fast Forward abandons Emmy, possibly trading or selling her to another trafficker. Youth in our care have told us about the dehumanizing experience of being sold from one trafficker to another. While Emmy isn’t a minor here, a case like this would be considered sex trafficking if there is any force, fraud, or coercion, including being exploited while under the influence of drugs.
Defiant Hope in Demon Copperhead
“I’ve tried in this telling, time and time again, to pinpoint the moment where everything starts to fall apart. Everything, meaning me. But there’s also the opposite, where some little nut cracks open inside you and a tree starts to grow. Even harder to nail. Because that thing’s going to be growing a long time before you notice. Years maybe. Then one day you say, Huh, that little crack between my ears has turned into this whole damn tree of wonderful.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead
As illustrated in Demon Copperhead trafficking can take many forms and no two situations are exactly alike. What we appreciate about Kingsolver’s work and how she shares the stories of Damon and his friends, is that she doesn’t tell only a story of despair but also shows the amazing strength of the Appalachian community and the resilience of the children born there. She tells about children whose defiant hope reminds us of the youth we work with each day. This story can grow our empathy and knowledge of what it can mean to be a vulnerable youth, help us see the human in human trafficking, and show us concrete examples of what we can do to help.
- Where in this book may adults have missed opportunities to support kids?
- How can the hillbilly stereotype lead to low self-esteem in youth? How did Damon and his friends push back?
- What are the strengths of Damon’s community?
- Watch the video at the top of this page and discuss similarities between these stories and the stories in Demon Copperhead.
- While we don’t see cases of familial trafficking in this book, we know that it’s incredibly common. Read and discuss this article: A Case of Human Trafficking in Appalachia and What Emergency Physicians Can Learn from It.