The trial of the century as witnessed by a teen

A teen novel revisits the Scopes monkey trial.

Tennessee teen Frances Robinson has a crush on a teacher. This wouldn't be newsworthy, except that the teacher in question is John Scopes. It's the summer of 1925, and the people of Dayton have just drafted the football coach to appear as defendant in "The trial of the century."

Everyone who's read or seen "Inherit the Wind," knows what happens next, but that won't stop young readers from enjoying Monkey Town. With debates on the teaching of evolution raging from Kansas to Pennsylvania, it's not surprising that books such as the well-received new biography of William Jennings Bryan and "Monkey Town" are appearing on store shelves.

What is pleasantly shocking is the freshness of the material, since readers could be forgiven for thinking that every sentence of the legal battle between Bryan and Clarence Darrow already had been parsed. For example, I hadn't realized that Scopes wasn't a "real" science teacher, just a coach who substituted for a few days when the biology teacher was out ill. Nor that the whole trial was a publicity stunt, concocted by the town fathers to rescue Dayton from decline.

Frances's father is a leader in this effort, and she finds it hard to forgive him when it becomes apparent that Scopes - as well as her hometown - is going to pay dearly for the tourism bureau's ambitions. "The village Aristides Sophocles Goldboroughs believed that the trial would bring in a lot of money, and produce a vast mass of free and profitable advertising. They were wrong on both counts, as boomers usually are," wrote journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial. "As for the advertising that went out over the leased wires, I greatly fear that it has quite ruined the town. When people recall it hereafter they will think of it as they think of Herrin, Ill., and Homestead, Pa. It will be a joke town at best, and infamous at worst."

Publicity materials claiming that "never has there been a novel for teens about the greatest trial of the 20th century," would no doubt surprise my ninth-grade English teacher. She put "Inherit the Wind" on her calendar, right before a "Romeo and Juliet"/"West Side Story" doubleheader. Certainly, "Monkey Town" is the first novel to look at the Scopes trial from a teen's perspective, and Kidd does a good job of getting Frances to witness the major happenings without too much strain. The two exceptions would be when she sneaks off to a revival meeting in the back of Mencken's car, and the night she and a friend foil a plot by Dayton residents to lynch the reporter.

The plot is apparently based in fact; Mencken's caustic descriptions caused a few Daytonians to feel that a letter to the editor - no matter how strongly worded - wasn't going to assuage their feelings. Mencken, who calls Frances "Monkey Girl," is more amused by the brouhaha than anything else: "You're a bunch of Bible-thumping extremists, and you couldn't put on a fair trial if your lives depended on it. But that doesn't mean I don't like you."

Kidd's bracing rendition of Mencken is the best thing about the book; Bryan and Darrow get relatively short shrift, perhaps to minimize inevitable comparisons with "Wind," although Darrow's famous opening speech, and his cross-examination of Bryan are showcased.

One note of caution: Readers may want to hold "Monkey Town" by the edges, so their fingers don't get mashed when Kidd starts pounding on his Gavel of Obviousness. This generally occurs when Frances - whose views ultimately sound rather like Intelligent Design - starts chewing over life, the universe, and everything. "All this time I had assumed that I needed to believe one side or the other. Darrow, Mencken, even Johnny Scopes himself - if they were right, then my father and the town of Dayton must be wrong. But it didn't have to be that way. Maybe all of them were right, and all of them were wrong. Maybe each was a little bit right. Maybe I could look at the world and decide for myself."

Occasional pontificating aside, any book that uses history to encourage teens to think for themselves is a welcome addition to Young Adult shelves.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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