Jun 27, 2016

Monkey Town

the Summer of the Scopes Trial
by Ronald Kidd

Middle-grade novel about a famous trial that was staged in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. The author had a friend whose mother was the girl Frances featured in the story; he gathered details doing interviews with people who actually remembered the trial from seventy years before. (A brief afterword delineates some of what was fact/what was fiction here).

In the novel, Frances is seventeen and swooning over the young schoolteacher Johnny Scopes. Her father owns the local drugstore, and he's always looking for ways to drum up business. Tennessee law at the time forbade state-run schools from teaching evolution, but the law had never been enforced. Scopes was a basketball and football coach. At one point he substituted a biology class and assigned some reading from the state-required textbook that included a chapter on Darwin's theory of evolution. Some scheming men (including Frances' father) saw this as reason to put him on trial for teaching evolution. It was all a stunt to get publicity and revitalize their quiet town. Scopes agreed to play his part. In fact (from a bit other reading I did online) it seems he encouraged students to testify against him. This story shows it all going sour on him, though in the end he had his own share of fame. Reporters and journalists swarm the town, everyone gets involved in heated arguments about evolution vs. creationism. Frances starts to question everything, too. But her main preoccupation is this infatuation with Johnny. It doesn't go anywhere. He always treats her like a kid.

And in the end, I got bored. I skimmed the last few chapters. I had heard of the Scopes trial before, but I was disappointed to discover it was all a big set-up. Frances gets enough glimpses of the trial to make a fair description of what happened, but those details did not quite hold my interest. Her child's view of how the townspeople respond to the implications of the trial could have been refreshing; there is plenty of contrast between small-town good-at-heart folks and big-city snobs that criticize and insult them. Frances also sees flaws among her familiar neighbors- those who want to sabotage the trial or who attack others for their beliefs. She's upset at discovering a side to her own father she never recognized before- he's often just out to make a buck. But her character felt rather flat to me. She was always questioning the status quo, always mooning over Johnny Scopes, and that was about it. I wanted a bit more depth. I'm probably being too hard on the book, after all it is written for middle grade or YA readers -kind of straddles the age groups in a way. The writing style and simplicity seem more appropriate for the younger set, but the discussions about God, evolution, questioning parental integrity, even some brief showing of early feminism, are more serious subject matter.

Rating: 2/5         259 pages, 2006


bermudaonion said...

I like the premise. :/

Thistle said...

Huh. I hadn't known the Scopes trial had been a set-up either, but I just did some reading on it, and yeah, it really was.

I remember it was mentioned multiple times in school classes, I wonder why it was never brought up that it was faked?

I'm disappointed as well.