In the summer of 1925, the residents of Dayton, Tennessee had a first-hand look at a controversial trial that centered on the debate between evolution and creationism. The community of less than 2,000 citizens was primarily an agricultural region, with most folks believing in the latter, especially the hard-core Baptists like Betty Barker.

The trial is the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial, named for the teacher, J.T. Scopes, who introduced the concept of evolution to the science class one day. The state of Tennessee has just passed the “Butler Act” that prohibited the teaching of evolution, and the Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge that law by taking the issue to trial.

For ten days, the town of Dayton bustles with activity and visitors who come great distances to see the trial. Reporters from across the nation come to cover the trial that is pitting Clarence Darrow against the famous orator, William Jennings Bryan. It is a boon for the owner of the boardinghouse, Tillie Stackhouse, who is one of the nine narrators of the story which is written in a poetic, free-verse style.

The influx of visitors also puts extra money in the pockets of Willy Amos and his pa, who know all too well that “colored” folks get paid a lot less than white folks. But they are enterprising and find ways to capitalize on this opportunity. They set up extra seating in the courthouse for all the visitors and sell the monkey-face flyers that people buy to put in the windows of their businesses and their homes.

There are also other, more subtle, effects of the trial on a number of people in the town. Marybeth Dodd gets the courage to apply for college, despite her fear that her father will not allow it. Willy Amos meets the famous Clarence Darrow and dreams of being the first “colored” lawyer in that area. And several young teens open their minds to possibilities outside of the rigid parameters of small-town thinking and Sunday school.

Even though the book is written for readers 12 and up, it can be enjoyed by adults as well. Each narrator has a distinctive voice that is presented through variances in the rhythm of the verse.  For example, the reporter’s verse is written in a literary style, while those of the young boys are written in a simple style that reflects their lack of world view and education.

Readers will be charmed and captivated by this wonderful book and come to cherish each of the narrators as their personal stories unfold. It is a perfect choice for summer reading, and it invites people to think about the science vs. religion debate that is still going on these many years later.

For educators and book groups, both the author and the publisher provide additional reading suggestions and websites as well as a downloadable discussion guide. 

Ringside 1925: Views From The Scopes Trial
Jen Bryant
ISBN: 978-0375940477
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Date of publish: Feb 12, 2008
Pages: 240 – S.R.P.: $18.99

 About the author:

Jen Bryant is a poet, novelist and biographer, and the author of more than twenty books for children, teens, and adults. Forthcoming titles include Abe’s Fish, a story of Abraham Lincoln, and A River of Words, about the poet William Carlos Williams. She lives with her family in Chester County, PA where she is an adjunct professor of Children’s Literature at West Chester University.

 Maryann Miller  Maryann’s Website

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