Till a Good Film, but not a Great One



TILL (2022)

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

United Artists, 130 minutes, PG-13 (disturbing images, racism)





Is it possible to make a Hallmark-like film about one of the most stomach-churning episodes in 20th century history? Allegations of racism ensued when neither Till nor director Chinonye Chukwu received Academy Award nominations. For once, though, the Academy was on target.


We should not confuse a compelling subject with a great movie. For instance, Pearl Harbor: Day That Will Live in Infamy (2001) was a loud romance with bad dialogue, The Help (2011) was a white girl fantasy, and Winnie Mandela (2013) a mess. Till is much better but it’s a decent movie, not a distinguished one.


First, a bit of history. In August 1955, Mamie Till-Bradley reluctantly allowed her 14-year-old son Emmett to travel from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his cousins. He was warned about Southern racism and told to be polite and deferential to whites. Alas, Emmett was said to have wolf-whistled Carolyn Bryant at her husband’s small grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Her husband Roy and his half brother J. W. Milam abducted Emmett from his uncle’s home. His bloated and decomposing body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. He had beaten, shot in the head, and sunk into the river with a cotton gin fan. Emmett was so badly disfigured that many local whites denied it was his body. Mamie had Emmett’s body sent back to Chicago and displayed in an open casket to call attention to racism. Nonetheless, an all-white jury barely deliberated before acquitting Bryant and Milam. During the trial, Emmett was also said to have assaulted Carolyn and aspersions were also cast on Mamie’s character. (Thereafter, Bryant and Milam bragged of having slain Emmett.)


Till is more Mamie’s story than her son’s, though Jalyn Hall gave a convincing performance as Emmett. His was a nice mix of a 14-year old’s charm, naiveite, and presentation as more world-wise and mature than he actually was. Danielle Deadwyler was terrific as Mamie, whom she transforms from protective mother to activist. We watch her simmer as she tries to bite her tongue during the Bryant-Milam trial, then regains her voice in the civil rights movement.


Till ultimately trips over a flawed script and Chukwa’s conservative direction. Call it a missed opportunity. Emmett Till’s murder galvanized the civil rights movement so thoroughly that the event has become a familiar narrative. Chukwa could have shed light on Mamie, whose post-1955 life is less known. Perhaps Chukwa was stymied by how to dramatize her story. Mamie was initially fiery and outspoken–presented in the film as a brief addendum–but most of her work was organizational and educational.


To circle back to the film’s conservatism, there is a lot of time wasted in presenting the extended Till family as a black counterpart to the white Golden Fifties myth. Mamie is such a doting mom that today we’d call her a helicopter mother. Whoopi Goldberg and Frankie Faison appear as her parents to add additional dollops of domestic bliss, and the script infers that Emmett’s father was killed in action. In truth, Louis Till went into the Army instead of jail after abusing Mamie after they separated. In Italy he was accused of rape, was court-martialed, and hanged. His was probably another miscarriage of justice, but the film sidesteps the impact on Mamie and barely mentions that she divorced her second husband when Emmett was 11. One might think such matters are personal, but they were not in 1955; both came up during the Bryant-Milam trial.


How do we explain that most critics praised the film and most who saw Till recommended it? First, not many have seen it; Till’s box office returned just half of its cost. Second, audience scores stripped from critic responses are not as enthusiastic. The Metacritic audience rating is 7.1, which is hardly a ringing endorsement in our age of grade inflation.


Chukwu’s focus suggests a “family” picture, but it’s ultimately tepid where it should scorch. If the idea was to avoid making a voyeuristic murder drama, why resort to grisly images (a realistic mannequin) at all? Especially at the expense of giving short shrift to the courtroom misjustice? Or truncating the Medgar Evers backstory?  


Till is an unstirred mix of domesticity, brutality, racism, and triumphalism (see the scroll over at the end). I admired Mamie Till-Bradley-Mobley, but it’s hard to get past the fact that her son was and always shall be the center of this great American tragedy.


Rob Weir


Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow: Too Much Game, not Enough Life




By Gabrielle Zevin

Alfred A Knopf, 398 pages.





I enjoyed The Life of A. J. Fikry, but was less enthralled by Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the latest novel from Gabrielle Zevin. I found Zevin’s characters quite memorable, but a lot of the book deals with America’s favorite anesthetic pursuit: video games. That’s not a habit I ever acquired.  Ironically, I’d rather chill with a great novel rather than read one about video games. Credit to Zevin, though. She’s a gamer, but deftly avoids romanticism; her four central characters are damaged goods.


Sam Masur/Mazer is socially awkward and you can take your pick if that’s because he’s on the spectrum, was traumatized his mother’s death in an accident in which he suffered permanent injuries, has suffered discrimination for being half Asian, or some combination of the three. Sam has mobility issues, so it’s hardly surprising that he became an early adoptee of video games.


Sam’s best friend from age 12 on is Sadie Green, who grew up with a hazy sense of noblesse oblige. You can imagine the strain when Sam learns he was Sadie’s bat mitzvah “project.” Power dynamics shift in unpredictable and volatile ways. Sam and Sadie love each other, but they frequently don’t like each other.


Though estranged, both are brilliant. Sadie goes to M.I.T. and he to Harvard, where he displaces Sadie with a new best friend, Marx Wetanabe. He is easy-going, filthy rich, and becomes the middleman in a video game venture that will also involve Sadie.  Her educational career was more fraught than that of Sam and Marx. She becomes interested in gaming via an egotistical and verbally abusive professor, Dov. Yet they become lovers, despite his complicated domestic ties.


Think of Sam, Marx, and Sadie as pulses in electronic and emotional nodes. With Marx as an underwriter Sam and Sadie are legendary and raking in royalties before they are 25. If only egos could be programmed and pain and tragedy could be replayed. In this sense, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an ironic title. Much depends on things that can and cannot be undone.


For me, the interplay between the characters is the most interesting part of the novel. Personal and professional crises unfold around the various games that Sam and Sadie develop. The games work well, but issues such as jealousy, intellectual property rights, domestic arrangements, and business decisions are harder to resolve. Soon, a lot of what passes for “communication” is encoded in games, forums, and dummy accounts. That’s not ideal. That little thing called “real life” has a way of not really caring about games, rivalry, or cleverness.  


Zevin cleverly parallels moods and situations with games in development whose titles–Ichigo, Both Sides, Counterpoint High, Maple World, The Scottish Expansion, Our Infinite Days, Pioneers–sound like they’re all over the map. That’s because they reveal the changing mindsets and tribulations of their creators. Marx commented, “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption, the idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”


Of course, life isn’t really a game and Marx’s assertion is only partially true. Win or lose is a binary without nuance. If you hit 30 and you’re no longer a few kids mucking around on computers, own a company, have employees, suffer a cash flow problem, and a big conglomerate wants to buy you, do you keep the faith? Take the money? Surrender creative control? Give up being an underground hero? Count the victims before you get your act together?


One could call the novel a 400-page debate over a single question: Which is better, the real or the unreal? An offshoot is whether we ever reach an age in which we stop asking that kind of question. As much as I admired Zevin’s character depth and her juxtaposition of outward success and inner turmoil, I grew tired of the video game hook. I get that Zevin wanted to fuse the unreal/real split to drive home how the barriers between them are leaky. Still, it felt depersonalizing to give equal depth to humans and game content. I also don’t believe humans can resolve their neuroses virtually. I’m certain, though, that Zevin overplayed the humans as joysticks angle.


Rob Weir


Wanda a Tough Film and Sociology Lesson


WANDA (1970; Restored 2019)

Directed and written by Barbara Loden

Bardene International Films, 103 minutes, R (nudity, language)





Wanda is a Criterion Collection film that’s a slice of past sociology. It’s also cinema verité done in an unadorned style that drew comparisons to Andy Warhol films, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). It allegedly influenced Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). A Godard analogy is overblown and I’d have to rewatch Ackerman’s film to comment on that, but director/writer Barbara Loden took me back in time–not just to 1970, but to the area where it was filmed.


Loden’s probably isn’t a familiar name. She was an actress, though best known as the wife of auteur Elia Kazan. I mention Kazan because gender is under the microscope in Wanda. Despite the spreading impact of second-wave feminism, it had not yet deeply penetrated American society. In vast swaths of society older gender expectations remained firmly in place. That is, women were expected to shoulder domestic duties, provide sexual release for men, and conform to roles as the “weaker” sex.


Loden’s film centered on such a place: the coal mining region of Northeast Pennsylvania in and around Scranton. This was not the part of Pennsylvania from which I hail, but I know it well and can attest that, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a dire place, especially for working-class families. Think slag heaps rising in backyards, run-down housing, dirty motels, people fossicking for coal lumps to heat their homes, beaten down residents, Catholic churches, and dive bars. (Brass-and-fern “pubs need not apply!) It was also home to men who felt entitled to a shag, even when it constituted rape.


Wanda (Loden) simply isn’t competent to cope with many aspects of her life. She wanders the coal fields with her hair in curlers, has casual sex with men of all ages and number of teeth, isn’t very smart, and is not cut out to be a wife and the mother of two children. She’s late to her own divorce hearing and when the judge asks her if she’s contesting the divorce just shrugs and says the kids would be better off with her husband. A later scene establishes that she has trouble reading at what we might consider a 3rd or 4th grade level.


With no home or ability to hold down a job, Wanda does what she’s always done–find someone who will treat her (a relative term!) until he turns violent, and then find another. After her divorce she wanders off with little more than the clothes on her back and some money she bummed. After a time, she inadvertently connects with “Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins),” a robber and nobody’s idea of Mr. Congeniality. He’s happy to screw Wanda and use her like a servant, but conversation or tenderness are off the table. One reason for the Godard comparison is the wild and fated road trip they take together. Film scholar Amy Taubin speculated that part of the film’s allure is that it took the sheen off of Bonnie and Clyde, a glamorized look at a crime couple on the lam. If that was Loden’s intent, she accomplished it in spades.


Wanda was made on a shoestring budget–a reported $115,000–and looks it. There is no musical soundtrack, the acting is sometimes stilted, colors are drab, and the entire project was shot in 16mm before being restored and transferred to 35 mm just a few years ago. For all of that, it’s hard to imagine that Loden could have better captured the world of 1970 from the point of view of desperate people looking for hope in a heartless environment. It is indeed cinema verité; Scranton was really that bad and Holy Land in Waterbury, Connecticut was as weird as it looks. Don’t bother searching IMDB for the secondary characters. Some were plucked from the streets and others were one-take minor actors.


Wanda wasn’t widely seen in its day. It got mixed reviews, though it did capture a major prize at a 1970 Venice film festival. It nearly disappeared altogether when a California film archive closed, but a 2010 MoMA showing in New York led to reassessment. My take is that it’s no Godard but is better than most of Warhol’s movies. It’s dated and, for good and ill, shares little in common with slick Hollywood offerings. But you sure can peel away a lot of social history by watching it now.


Rob Weir


Whisky Galore Will Test Your Hearing but Tickle Your Funny Bone



Directed by Alexander Mckendrick

Ealing Studios, 82 minutes, Not-rated





Ealing Studios is a legendary movie production facility on the outskirts of London. In the 1940s and 1950s it was renowned for cranking out comedies, several of which are considered groundbreaking in Britain. Whisky Galore was an early effort and, if you can work out the Scots dialect and have no problem with some good-natured stereotyping, remains a delightful way to while away a short part of an evening.


It was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and its script was penned by Compton Mackenzie, based on his 1947 novelization of an actual event. (Mackenzie also got a minor role in the film.) In real life, the S. S. Politician ran aground near the Scottish islands of Eriskay and Barra in 1941, laden with 21,000 cases of whisky. Islanders plundered the ship and 19 got short jail sentences for avoiding excise taxes. (Most got off, ahem, scot-free.) If that’s not the setup for a comedy, I don’t what is!


The islands were renamed Great and Little Todday for the film, and most of the filming was done during miserable weather on Barra. You’ll hear snippets of Scots Gaelic; Barra is indeed a place where Gaelic is spoken alongside English. The movie boat is rechristened the S. S. Cabinet Minister and its cargo upgraded to 55,000 cases of uisge beatha (literally water of life, aka/whisky). Good comedies take liberties and this one is no exception. As we tune in, islanders are mired in deep depression. It’s 1943 and, horror of horrors, the whisky has run out, rationing is in place, and no shipments are looming on the horizon. Until, of course, a fortuitous shipwreck makes relief but a salvage effort away.


Several problems loom, though. First, just as the villagers prepare to sail in the near-daylight conditions of a northern summer, the clock strikes midnight and they turn back. It’s one thing to steal cargo, but it would be a mortal sin to blow off mass and do so on the Sabbath! Oh! the disconsolate faces. Second, Britain had something called the Home Guard during the war, basically a citizen militia headed by older veterans like Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), a teetotaler and all-around by-the-books spoilsport. He even posts Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seaton), who is on leave, to “enforce” his command banning islanders from boarding the boat.


You can imagine how that edict will stand. Surrealistic comedy and plot twists abound. The latter include a dour mother (Jean Cadell) who henpecks her courage-challenged son George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), two sisters being courted simultaneously (Gabrielle Blunt and a very young Joan Greenwood), a besotted betrothal ceremony (a rèiteach if you want to practice your Gaelic), and several wild goose chases worthy of the Keystone Cops.  Being that this is Scotland, you can also anticipate that respectability is a soft target for satire.  


A major joy of this film, which comes across even if you struggle with the Scots brogue, is its proliferation of eccentric characters. As is often the case in British/Scottish/Irish films, those parts often went to talented actors given leave to chew some scenery. Cadell’s imperious widow Campbell is in one such role, but there’s also The Biffer (one who throws punches real and metaphorical) played by Morland Graham, loads of inept authority figures, and the delightful turn of James Robertson Justice as a doctor who dispenses the kind of medical advice that we wish all doctors would prescribe. Seton’s Sergeant Odd also lives up to his name.


Yes, the movie does stereotype Scots as the sort who would anything to secure a glass of whisky. And, yes again, to whether the comedy is broad as well as surreal. I reiterate that you might miss some of the funny lines, but even if you only understand half of it, you’ll rise from your chair with a smile upon you lips.


Rob Weir


Note: If you wonder why Gordon Jackson looks familiar, he later achieved instant fame as butler Angus Hudson in the surprise TV hit Upstairs, Downstairs. Joan Greenwood was a well-known movie and TV actress who won even greater acclaim in British theatre. Radford was also in The Lady Vanishes. For the record, scot-free has nothing to do with Scottish people; it comes from a Middle English term that meant exempt from royal taxes.


Lessons in Chemistry a Delightful Feminist Fantasy



By Bonnie Garmus

Doubleday, 386 pages





Lessons in Chemistry is the delightful debut of novelist Bonnie Garmus. At heart it’s a feminist fantasy, but an unorthodox one. It’s hysterical in places, poignant in others, and anchored by Elizabeth Zott, whose stubbornness, opinionated ways, and uncompromising behavior are her greatest strength and greatest weakness.


It really is about chemistry, both the laboratory and interpersonal varieties. It is set in the 1950s and early 1960s, when “hard” subjects such as science are the preserve of men. Women, it was assumed, were unfit for such fields. Elizabeth’s problem is that “I’m a chemist” is her personal mantra. She has had the misfortune of being victimized by those whose moral compass is akin to a fuel gauge pointing toward E. Her parents were hucksters, she was sexually assaulted by her academic advisor, and never finished her degree. In the eyes of most she’s not a real chemist, though some realize she is brilliant and can’t wait to steal her research.


Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. You might continue to think that when she lands a job at the otherwise all-male Hastings Research Institute lab headed by the sleazy Dr. Donatti who pays her a fraction of what others are making, including some of the female support staff. Zott doesn’t do herself any favors, though. She has few filters, a barbed tongue, and backs down to no one. Donatti would be happy to cherry-pick her notes and get rid of her except for a major complication: Calvin Evans.


Evans has also been kicked around, including being raised in a Catholic orphanage in Iowa headed by a priest who is Donatti’s equal on the reprehensibility scale. Evans grows up tall, gawky, and geeky—perfect chemistry material. He too lands at Hastings, allegedly because its California location was good for his one non-Bunsen burner passion: rowing. Make that two. After a few comic misfires, he’s in love with the beautiful Elizabeth. She reciprocates because, in her words, he was “the first man to take me seriously.” Calvin knows what Donatti refuses to see; Zott is the smartest thing in the lab and that might include him, though he is a perennial Nobel Prize nominee. If Donatti wants to keep Evans, who is routinely courted by Harvard and others, Zott is part of the package.


Elizabeth comments, “Calvin and I were soulmates.” Label them socially transgressive ones. He’d love to marry her, but she wants no part of that institution, though she’s happy to live with him and enjoy a carnal relationship. In the 1950s, that’s practically an un-American breach of morality. Like Elizabeth cares. At some point she and Calvin acquire a stray mutt they name Six-Thirty and Zott begins to keep track of the number of words he knows. The pooch will become a major character in his own right. Elizabeth also obtains a daughter, Mad, under less-than-ideal circumstances and raises her to be as forceful and bold as she. Mad’s encounters with her less-intelligent kindergarten teacher are side-splitting.


Mad is often called Madeline, but her given name really is Mad. There’s an amusing backstory to that as well, but even wackier is the avenue through which Elizabeth gains credibility. At some point, Donatti manages to jettison Elizabeth. Because she needs the money, Zott is convinced to try her hand at a cooking show, on her own terms of course. She has the right look, but she’s a serious as a preacher, refuses to go girly on the air, and insists that her cooking show be about chemistry! When she cooks, she adds NaCl, not salt, and speaks of how it helps build covalent bonds. Against all odds, the show is a smash hit and now it’s the station head who wants her gone. Why? Because she also tells women that they are exploited and voices her opinions on whatever she deems logical, no matter who is shocked by it. The past and the present will collide in what passes for a happy ending in this offbeat novel. I shall say only that Zott’s ever-present yellow pencil is outdone by a pen and several women whose pluck rivals Elizabeth’s.   


I emphasize that this is fiction, not a tale “based on a true story,” as that hackneyed phrase goes. Call it the history that should have been and is only believable because of social changes that subsequently occurred. If you prefer, though, you can just surrender to the fantasy, enjoys some laughs, and revel in characters who punch above their weight class and win.


Rob Weir


The Lady Vanishes Saved by Oddball Characters



Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, 97 minutes, Not-rated

In English, French, Italian, and German (with subtitles)




The Lady Vanishes is a mixture of film noir, drama, and eccentric British humor, though as Alfred Hitchcock films go, it doesn’t stand up as one of his stellar efforts. It opens in a made-up location analogous to a Swiss or French Alpine ski resort town. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) hopes to return to England to get married, but an avalanche forces everyone on the coast-bound train to depart and spend the night at a hotel. The usual confusion and jockeying ensues over who gets rooms and of what level of comfort. Iris has a small set-to with an ethnomusicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave).


Note the date: 1938. This is a time in which much Europe is already at war or about to be. You’d not know there was anything wrong by listening to Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two older British bachelors whose main concern is that they might not get back to England in time to catch the end of a big cricket test match. By the next day the snow is cleared from the rails, but as people prepare to board, a flower planter plonks Iris on the head. She is helped onto the train by Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older woman. Later she has tea with Froy then retires to her compartment to sleep. When she awakes, Froy is nowhere to be found. She queries everyone she met the night before, including lawyer Eric Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and his mistress who is passing herself off as his wife. No one recalls having seen Froy on the train. Everyone, except for Charters and Caldicott, think the blow to the head has made Iris imagine things.


There’s your mystery: Where is Miss Froy? Things get a bit more odd when the Germanic Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas, who was actually Hungarian) boards with a heavily bandaged patient being tended by a deaf-mute nun who looks like Froy and whom Todhunter’s mistress insists is she. There’s a knife-wielding Italian magician and enough intrigue to keep viewers guessing. Are we seeing some sort of Nazi plot? A game of spy-versus-spy? An international incident in the making? Lots of people who aren’t who they are pretending to be? A switcheroo? Is Iris really potty, or was the flowerpot that crowned her not an accident? Why iwas a non-skiing ethnomusicologist doing at the resort? The only constant is that Charters and Caldicott are really worried about missing the cricket match. (Speaking of batty!)


Radford and Wayne must have had a blast playing Charters and Caldicott. They are like Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern crossed with Detective Clouseau and a pair of upper-class twits from a Monty Python sketch. In many ways, they are the best thing in the film, the latter an occasionally awkward mélange of mystery, beat-the-clock drama, tension, and peculiar characters. I suspect it was no accident that some of the film’s devices are reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which was published four years earlier. To be sure there are classic Hitchcock devices–suspense, point of view shots, skewed camera angles, subtle class commentary–but it’s not very hard to figure out where things are headed.


The Lady Vanishes is often classified as a thriller and is often said to be one of Hitchcock’s best films, but it’s no North by Northwest or Psycho. Take the diverting oddity of Charters and Caldicott from the film and you’d be left with a drama quite a lot like others from the World War II era. That means you’d still have a decent way to spend an hour and a half, but you’d probably not wear out a thesaurus searching for superlatives. Luckily, Charters and Caldicott are there. As I often say, the English are unrivaled when it comes to oddballs. Charters and Caldicott make unraveling the mystery fun and the grit and pluck of the movie’s revelations more stiff upper lip believable.


Rob Weir


Demon Copperhead Lacks Dickens' Redemption



By Barbara Kingsolver

Harper, 546 pages.                                         




Demon Copperhead, the new novel from Barbara Kingsolver, reveals several things. First, Ms. Kingsolver can really write, but we know that. Second, she can spin a story chocked full of characters. We know that too. Third, she’s a big fan of Dickens, which maybe you didn’t know. Fourth, she’s no Charles Dickens.


Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky, but now lives in Virginia, which is where Demon Copperhead is set, the Goochland area of Lee County to be exact. It’s rural and there are namesake reptiles around, but the title references protagonist and narrator Damon Fields. Many of the characters go by handles that riff off their birthnames, hence Damon is “Demon” and “Copperhead" his red hair. Kingsolver’s novel is an adaptation of David Copperfield refashioned as crises in the contemporary Southern Appalachians. It’s a clever idea, but it trips over one of its objectives, breaking the stereotype that the region isn’t inhabited by ignorant hillbillies.


If you can’t stomach children in jeopardy, adults amorally using kids for their own purposes, an entire county addicted to drugs, death at an early age, and failed social systems, you should steer clear of Demon Copperhead. Demon was almost never born. His teenaged addict mother passed out on the kitchen floor, went into labor, and expelled her son still trapped inside the amniotic sac. Given what happens to him over the next several decades you might conclude it would have merciful had he not been rescued by next-door neighbor Mrs. Peggot. Like Copperfield, Demon becomes a ward of society at an early age. His tribulations make those Copperfield seem almost cheerful by contrast.


Kingsolver’s Lee County is populated by those with nicknames and traits that mirror those in Dickens: Demon’s evil stepfather Murrell Stone (“Stoner”) is Dickens’ Murdstone; his best friend Matt (“Maggot”) is Ham Peggotty; the scheming McCobb foster family is the Micawbers; the cruel Mr. Crickson (“Creaky”) is borstal headmaster Mr. Creakle; Mrs. Peggot is Clara Peggotty crossed with Mrs. Gummidge; foster home friend Tommy is Tommy Waddles; the oily “U-Haul” is Uriah Heep; Sterling Ford (“Fast Forward”) is a down-market James Steerforth; Demon’s grandmother Betsy Woodall and her brother “Mr. Dick” are Betsey Trotwood and Richard Babley; Demon’s first wife Dori Spencer is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow and his second love Agnes (“Angus”) Winfield is Agnes Wickfield. You'll find numerous other near-pairings. Kingsolver’s most original idea is to make Demon a Melungeon, a white/black/native mixed race common in that section of Virginia.


Homage can be tricky. There are modern twists in Demon Copperhead–OxyContin/fentanyl addiction, a gay character, a Southeast Asian storekeeper, an interracial couple, cartoons and graphic novels, football at the expense of health and education, disappearing jobs, sexism, Walmart, dollar stores, appalling diets–but the storyline remains that of Dickens. Therein lies several problems. I adored the first few hundred pages of the novel but at some point, it begins to read as if it's a sociological expose of Southern poverty and, by extension, regional inhabitants. When six-year-old Demon comments, “I was inked with the shitprints of life: thrashings, lies told, days on getting peaced out on weed, months of going hungry,” it feels as if he speaks for everyone in the county.


Dickensian humor is sorely lacking. Kingsolver has eccentric characters, but few funny ones, which Dickens used to relieve despair. The McCobbs are not like the Micawbers, nor Mrs. Peggot a risible “poor lone creature” like Mrs. Gummidge. We feel sorry for Demon and his cohort, but none possess Copperfield’s essential goodness. Overall, there are very few sympathetic characters, especially on the adult side of the ledger. Readers will notice that aside from Mr. and Mrs. Peggot and their daughter Jane, the adults are uniformly awful. Indeed, the bulk of the book’s characters are so feral that one could conclude that the region is dominated by drug-addled rednecks.


Is Kingsolver offering verisimilitude or exaggerated sensationalism? There’s no faulting Kingsolver’s prose; she expertly captures the inner thoughts of a posturing-but-scarred youngster, makes readers recoil in horror, and is positively elegiac in describing the landscape. Mostly, though, she drags us through the mud. Perhaps your constitution is stronger than mine, but I felt like I needed a week of hot showers to wash away feelings of hopelessness. Dickens’ novel runs 624 pages and Kingsolver’s 556, but hers feels as if it’s twice that length. By the time we finish, Kingsolver’s semblance of a happy ending rings false–quite unlike David Copperfield’s triumph.


Rob Weir