Monkey Business 

Coming of age during the trial of the century

Coming of age during the trial of the century

Sometimes people change when they go out into the world. Sometimes they change when the world comes to them.

Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, a terrific new novel by Nashville’s Ronald Kidd, tells the story of a young girl discovering the world not by traveling but by watching a circus come to her town—in the form of arguably the most famous trial in American history. When high-school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in 1925, Dayton, Tenn—which had always been just north of Chattanooga—was finally put on the map. That bit of social cartography was accomplished when townspeople initiated a media extravaganza the likes of which had never before been seen.

Sometimes people change when they go out into the world. Sometimes they change when the world comes to them. Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, a terrific new novel by Nashville’s Ronald Kidd, tells the story of a young girl discovering the world not by traveling but by watching a circus come to her town—in the form of arguably the most famous trial in American history. When high-school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in 1925, Dayton, Tenn—which had always been just north of Chattanooga—was finally put on the map. That bit of social cartography was accomplished when townspeople initiated a media extravaganza the likes of which had never before been seen.

The American Civil Liberties Union had advertised for a teacher willing to be put on trial for violating the Butler Act, Tennessee’s anti-evolution law. Businessmen in Dayton wanted to get the trial before another town could claim the fame, so they convinced John Scopes, a substitute teacher and football coach with almost no knowledge of biology, to volunteer to be prosecuted. As the summer wore on and a mass of reporters, lawyers, religious fanatics—and at least one chimpanzee—descended on Dayton, people began to wonder what they had wrought. It is history ripe for storytelling, and Kidd took up the challenge.

His protagonist, Frances Robinson, is based on the real-life Frances Robinson, whom Kidd met in 1994, a meeting that inspired him to write Monkey Town. By adding seven years to the real Robinson’s age, he was able to weave her memories of the trial into a story in which she participates, not just observes. In the novel, Frances is 15: old enough to question her elders and to hold considered opinions about the larger-than-life events unfolding around her
She’s also old enough to have a crush on her teacher, “Johnny” Scopes. This fictional relationship supplies the personal crisis and coming-of-age plot line that reflects the societal crisis unfolding around her. Kidd memorably portrays the giants who were walking the streets of Dayton 81 years ago.

Sitting in the drug store sipping Coca-Cola is the leading defense counsel of his age, Clarence Darrow, who has volunteered his services in the only pro-bono case of his career. The aging William Jennings Bryan, world-famous populist, argues the state’s case against Scopes, defending religion at every opportunity, in and out of the courtroom. Watching from the gallery is H.L. Mencken, using his newspaper columns to criticize nearly everything in American society and reserving special venom for the old-fashioned ways of the South.

Kidd, who came to Nashville 17 years ago after a stint as a Disney executive, is a veteran author with seven young-adult novels, many children’s picture books, and several plays for adult audiences to his name. “When I sit down to write a book, I like to write in first person and I tend to write teenage characters,” he said in an interview. The fact that he first learned the details of the Scopes trial through recollections of the real Frances Robinson, a young girl at the time, made it even more appropriate that the central character and the target audience be teenagers. But though Monkey Town was written with a young-adult audience in mind, Simon & Schuster is marketing it as a crossover novel, with dust-jacket art and publicity material targeted to adults. Political commentator James Carville even supplied a jacket blurb. The appeal to adults may work, given the ongoing controversy over the teaching of evolution and the amazing cast of characters that populated the trial.

Kidd memorably portrays the giants who were walking the streets of Dayton 81 years ago. Sitting in the drug store sipping Coca-Cola is the leading defense counsel of his age, Clarence Darrow, who has volunteered his services in the only pro-bono case of his career. The aging William Jennings Bryan, world-famous populist, argues the state’s case against Scopes, defending religion at every opportunity, in and out of the courtroom. Watching from the gallery is H.L. Mencken, using his newspaper columns to criticize nearly everything in American society and reserving special venom for the old-fashioned ways of the South.

According to Kidd, “John Scopes was being used by everybody.” In a tradition of grandstanding that probably dates back to the earliest humans, the celebrities came only to further their own agendas. Scopes, eager to help his fellow townspeople, readily admitted to violating the Butler Act, and the trial should have ended the day it began. But the ACLU wanted a sensational test case. Clarence Darrow wanted an epic battle, a confrontation with religion, especially hoping to disgrace William Jennings Bryan. Bryan wanted to destroy Darwinism, which he saw as not only an affront to the Bible but, through its despicable offspring Social Darwinism, a threat to the welfare of the common man he loved so much. Judge Raulston, hoping for greater glory in politics, let the arguments go on much longer than justice required. H.L. Mencken…well, he wanted to be H.L. Mencken: to criticize with grand style anyone and anything he didn’t like. Except for his name, Scopes was quickly forgotten in all the commotion.

Caught in the middle, sometimes literally, is Kidd’s young Frances, trying to come to grips with the doubt growing inside her: “I looked up and saw the moon moving behind the clouds. Or maybe the clouds were moving and the moon was standing still. Then I realized that everything was moving—the moon, the clouds, the earth, my town. The very house I sat in was whirling through space, speeding, shifting, changing as it went. And so was I.”

The theme of doubt and its proper place in human life is central to the book, a theme that works well with a teenage protagonist. Kidd places Frances squarely between her father, whom she idealizes as the embodiment of good, and Mencken, who, through his unrepentant disdain of everything she values, is an apparent paragon of just plain nastiness. As she watches the trial and the accompanying machinations, she realizes that not everyone is who they seem, and that some are more dangerous than they first appear.

Although memories of the Scopes trial have been eclipsed by more recent Trials of the Century and the near-constant media extravaganza that surrounds us 24/7, the battle rages on between those who advocate teaching biblical creation (or its descendant, intelligent design) and those who believe biological evolution is the proper subject for science class.

Recent legislative fights in Pennsylvania, Kansas and Ohio have refocused attention on an issue that simply will not go away, despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1987 that prohibits the teaching of creationism in anything other than a class in religion. Largely out of the public eye for decades, the issue recently rode back to the front page on a wave of support from fundamentalist Christians concerned that the moral decline of America is related to teaching that man evolved from other animals.

With so much at stake for both sides of the issue, portraits of the Scopes trial and its participants are often reduced to stereotypes and caricatures, fed by a mythology so pervasive that an accurate depiction of the event is nearly impossible to obtain. In Monkey Town, Kidd says, one of his goals was to set the record straight. “I tried to steer a middle ground…to paint a more balanced picture than Inherit the Wind,” the 1955 play that has probably shaped views of the trial more than any other source. Though regarded almost universally as great theater, Inherit the Wind was horribly slanted against the Bryan character. “I wanted to do as much as I could to tell my story within a very accurate framework of history…to show sympathy for both sides.” To that end, Kidd has provided a concise author’s note, describing where he took liberties with the story and what happened to the participants after the trial. He has, in short, used the medium of a novel to report the story more truthfully than many “non-fiction” accounts. That he tells this story of great ideas and growing doubt in a very readable style is all the more remarkable.

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