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Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial

by Jen Bryant

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"Ringside, 1925" was quite an entertaining book. It's a historical fiction novel detailing the events of the John Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. A brief synopsis:

Tennessee passes the Butler Act, making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. Some local bigwigs in Dayton come together and decide to try and have a cooperating teacher fight the act, likely as a marketing strategy to bring tourists (and their money) to the town. Scopes was chosen because he was young, well liked. single, new to the town, and willing to take the fall.

The trial brought not only the ACLU, but two famous lawyers to each side. For the prosecution it was William Jennings Bryant, former Presidential candidate, US Representative, and Secretary of State - also a Fundamentalist Christian. And for the defense, Clarence Darrow, a lawyer famous for defending the rights of all people, including two men recently found, clearly, guilty of murder, and accused African-Americans, which, unfortunately for the time, could actually be a comparison. Regardless, both men were considered fantastic orators and practitioners of the law.

However, a fundamentalist judge essentially crippled the defenses stance that the law was unjust. They were not allowed expert witnesses (who were scientists who found a way to reconcile their beliefs in God and evolution), nor was Clarence Darrow's examination of W.J. Bryant - showing his lack of worldly knowledge and the logical incongruities in a literal belief in the Christian Bible - was deemed inadmissible. In fact the jury only witnessed less than a few hours of the week long trial.

This, easily led to a guilty verdict and a fine of $100 dollars for Scopes.

Now, quite different from most historical fiction that I'm used to reading. And not just mildly different, radically different. Firstly, the book is written almost entirely in free verse poetry. This would be a bit different. But, there is also nine different narrators, each created by the author of the book, Jen Bryant. Each of them are close to the Scopes trial, whether it be personally, philosophically, or even just in proximity at some points. They all provide their own perspective of the trial and how it is affecting their lives. Though, it is crafted in a way that overwhelmingly supports the defense (Dang!). The book is separated into eight different parts, containing the first person accounts of the narrators.

I love this style, as Bryant is using multiple narrators as her characters, all with their distinctive style in regards to the poetry. For example, there's the narrator/character of Jimmy Lee Davis. His sections of poetry all use short lines, about 3-4 words long. He is also quite adept at relating things back to his love of fishing and baseball. Then there's Betty Barker, the fanatical Christian Fundamentalists, whose observations seemed to be frantic and sometimes a bit rambling. In stark contrast there is Ernest McManus, a tourist/slash minister with a more progressive view on Darwinism. His portions of narrations are both intelligent and thoughtful in regards to the situation. Bryant definitely skews her narrative in favor of Darrow and Scopes. But, being that is was published in 2008 I can hardly blame her. It's just about undeniable science.

Funny thing is, even though it is completely different from "The Scopes Trial: Defending the Right to Teach" with regards to narration, style, and genre, many of the main points of the trial still remain. Even though none of the narrators were actual people, they still provide essential details, and their responses. Like when the judge disallowed all of the defenses the narrator Constable Fraybel - a Christian - states "To me, the judge's decision seemed/ridiculous/Most of us here in Dayton wanted to hear more/about evolution..."(143). This is quite a plus for me, as, it is quite a compelling - if not sometimes a bit scattered - narrative, and the key points of the trial remain historically true.

As for its companion, "The Scopes Trial: Defending the Right to Teach," there are very few similarities outside of the factual events and mention of actual people - which is another point for "Ringside" as all of the characters outside of the narrators are actually based on the nonfictional players in the circus trial. They follow the same plot, and basically have the same structure - Set-up/Charges, Pre-Trial, Trial, and Post-Trial, Epilogue. However, "The Scopes Trial" is a more straightforward account, detailing key trial figures and their backgrounds. Though, it's a brief book that provides more of a brief overview of the events.

Though I do have one complaint. Every once in a while - I believe about 3-4 times throughout the novel - the narrative takes the form of Paul Lebrun's news articles. And while they take place during key moments of the trial, and I suppose was intended to lend an aura of legitimacy, but was really just jarring. Going from dozens of pages of poetic form to an immediate switch to prose for two pages was an odd choice that I didn't like. ( )
1 vote JFinnegan | Apr 6, 2016 |
Told in poems, Ringside, 1925 is the retelling of the Scopes Trial from the view of many of the townspeople. I enjoyed the poem format more than I was expecting to. It ended up working a lot like a novel in dialog- with the different people telling vignettes from their experiences. The prose was lively and often funny. I was impressed by the detail and respect in the characterization. What could have easily been caricatures were all well thought out and realized people on all sides of the issue. It is not often that a book makes me truly think about what I believe and why I believe it, but this one did so without any perceivable effort.
  rkat | Mar 3, 2011 |
Reviewed by Natalie Tsang for TeensReadToo.com

Jen Bryant's RINGSIDE 1925 explores the Scopes Trial, one of the most controversial trials in American history, through nine diverse characters and is told through vivid verse.

One memorable summer, the sleepy town of Dayton, Tennessee, population 1,800, is turned upside down by the trial of a well-liked high school teacher. His crime is teaching evolution, a subject that the state of Tennessee had forbidden in the newly passed Butler Law.

William Jennings Bryan, a talented orator, preacher, and three time presidential nominee, will speak against evolution,
and Clarence Darrow, a brilliant lawyer, comes to defend Mr. Scopes.

News of the trial spreads quickly and, almost overnight, the town fills with news reporters, scientists, religious leaders, and tourists. Many residents, such as twelve-year-old Willy Amos and drugstore owner Mr. Robinson, see it as an opportunity to make some quick easy money. Since Darwin's theory of evolution suggests that man evolved from monkeys, Dayton begins selling everything from paper monkeys to Simian Sodas.

At first, the atmosphere is friendly and fun. Though they are on opposing sides of the "monkey trial," W. J. Bryan and Mr. Darrow are friends and share a dinner together at Tillie Stackhouse's boarding house. But as the trial drags on in the muggy summer weather, tensions rise. Not only do the two men's friendship become strained, but many of the residents become embroiled in the increasingly bitter God vs. science debate.

Many young readers may have learned about the Scopes Trial in school, but Bryant brings a new level of relevance by telling the story primarily through the eyes of Dayton's residents and observing the smaller but no less significant changes to a small town in addition to the broad historical significance.

Jimmy Lee Davis and Peter Sykes have been fishing buddies and best friends for years, but their personal beliefs lead them to support opposite sides of the trial. Marybeth Todd is a smart but restless teenager. When several professors come to stay at the boarding house she works at, they ask her to participate in their discussions of geology, anthropology, and other unfamiliar and wonderful topics. The influx of visitors brings in money, but also new ideas and opportunities.

Readers who usually dislike historical fiction will find Bryant's characters fresh, familiar, often insightful, and sometimes silly. The story feels real and full-fleshed, but never gets bogged down by its research. ( )
  GeniusJen | Oct 12, 2009 |
Richie's Picks: RINGSIDE, 1925: VIEWS FROM THE SCOPES TRIAL by Jen Bryant, Knopf, February 2008, ISBN: 0-375-84074-8; LIBR ISBN: 0-375-94047-2

"I sat speechless...a ringside observer at my own trial, until the end of the circus."
--John T. Scopes, defendent

"Tennessee, Tennessee,
There ain't no place I'd rather be."
-- Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia

PETER SYKES

"...Our state lawmakers passed the Butler Act

because they think science will poison our minds.
Well, I don't feel poisoned. I still believe in the divine.
Why should a bigger mind need a smaller god?

It's still a miracle how everything works,
how everything has a purpose. Even the buzzards
are beautiful in their own way. I watch them

steer from one invisible layer to another --
wings wide, using their tails as rudders --
searching for something my human eyes

can't find. When I flatten my back
against the rock and look up, a flock
of dark crosses blesses the Tennessee sky."

Now, I consider myself to be a person who is exceptionally tolerant of anyone's personal religious beliefs -- as long as they don't try to lay them on me or impact my personal life with them.

I truly don't know how I would feel if I were a woman and suddenly had to make an emotional decision regarding an unwanted pregnancy, but I can tell you that it absolutely drives me up a wall to see a safe and routine medical procedure become the subject of vicious political campaigns that are grounded in intolerant religious dogma.

It also breaks my heart that so many of my beloved friends cannot live their lives to the fullest because prejudice and religious views mixed with politics have kept them from gaining the right to contractually and spiritually share everything under the law with the one person whom they love so dearly, just as all married hetero couples do. What real meaning, if not in such circumstances, does the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" hold?

"How is it we are here on this path we walk
In this world of pointless fear filled with empty talk
Descended from the apes as scientist-priests all think
Will they save us in the end, we're trembling on the brink."
-- Mike Pinder

But, even worse, it scares the hell out of me that there can be numerous Presidential candidates who -- in 2007 no less! -- reject the "theory" of evolution. While I consider myself relatively bright, I certainly don't consider myself anywhere near smart enough to be President of the United States. I want someone far more intelligent then me in that place where instant decisions can profoundly affect life in our country and on this planet forever and ever.

From my decades as a reader and an exemplary student I know that evolution is no more of a theory than is tectonic plate "theory" and -- in my part of the country -- you'd better be up to speed on the consequences of tectonic plate "theory" or you can one day suddenly end up as flat as an extinct one-celled fossil. To even make anyone who doesn't understand or "believe in" scientific fact a Twenty-first century school board member -- no less President of the United States -- would be truly insane.

Unfortunately, this country has a long storied tradition of such insanity.

JIMMY LEE DAVIS

"Tarnation! Poor Mr. Scopes!
He didn't know why
Mr. White came
to fetch him from
his tennis game
& bring him into Robinson's.
Me & Pete sipped
our sodas & listened
as he confessed
that back in the spring
when we were still in school,
he assigned us
the chapter on evolution,
which explained how
all the animals on earth
had started as simpler creatures
millions of years ago,
& how, over time,
they changed & developed
into the insects, birds,
fish & mammals
we see today,
& how, even now,
they were still changing.
(I try not to think of
fish as my ancestors
when I'm cleaning them.)

Mr. Robinson held up a copy
of Hunter's Civic Biology,
which is the book we used
in school, which is also
one of the books he sells
in his store, & asked:
'Did you use this in class?'
Calm as Conner's Pond,
Mr. Scopes said: 'Sure I did, Fred.
You can't teach science
at Rhea County High
without using that book!'

Mr. Robinson smiled
wide as a catfish unhooked.
'Well, John, the American
Civil Liberties Union will pay
to defend the first person
who challenges the new law
against teaching evolution
in Tennessee. So we were
wondering if you'd mind
being arrested, to get
the whole business
right out on the table,
right here in Dayton.'

Lordy! My ears
were burnin' & Pete near
choked to death
on his root beer.
Mr. Scopes saw us eaves-
dropping. He winked &
tipped his cap. 'Sure, I guess
that'd be all right --
long as I can finish
my tennis match.'
The men took turns
patting him on the back,
thanking him, telling him
not to worry; they'd send
someone down to
arrest him
later that afternoon."

What makes Jen Bryant's RINGSIDE, 1925 such a fun and great read is rooted in the collection of adolescent narrators who tell much of the story. They frame the news of the trial within the context of their daily lives which are altered by the upheaval, notoriety, and economic benefits that come to their town, thanks to the widely-publicized trial. The interactions amongst young friends and the sweetness of who is crushing on whom or the tension of best friends being sore at one another are the sort of touches that allow today's readers to fully relate to these teen characters from eighty years ago. At the same time, the author has neatly fitted in subtle details of life in the Twenties that provide a taste of how thoroughly technology and culture has rocked the world since those days of silent movies and Gatsby and the first commercial music recordings. And, most importantly, the author adds in a good dose of levity.

"I don't feel safe in this world no more
I don't want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore
And make like an apeman."
-- The Kinks

WILLY AMOS

"...Yesterday I was not
Willy Amos, peddler of fruit and tobacco;
I was Willy Amos, lawyer for the defense
fightin' against a big-city factory
forcin' its workers
to make twice as many gadgets
in half the time, payin' them
half the wages they should be makin',
and firin' them
if they made trouble..."

I'm betting that there'll definitely be a segment of this book's young readership who will immediately go out looking for a biography of Clarence Darrow, the historical character in the book whose portrayal makes him a likable hero worth knowing and emulating. Heck, I sure want to know more about him now.

RINGSIDE, 1925 is a teriffic read that is going to make a great, high interest readers theater piece in eighth grade history and language arts classes and will serve as a great springboard for debates and some really evolved higher thinking exercises.

Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/
BudNotBuddy@aol.com
http://www.myspace.com/richiespicks ( )
  richiespicks | May 27, 2009 |
This is a novel in verse about the Scopes Monkey/Evolution trial. It has 9 narrators--mostly townspeople, plus a few observers. Each character has their own poetic voice and style. Even though, like many poetry novels, I'm wondering if deleting the line breaks would have made such a difference.

It's broken into several sections, each one starting with quotations from people involved in the trial. There is a epilogue explaining what happened with the historical personages, as well as the current issues with teaching evolution in our science classes. There is also a short author's note explaining why she did certain things (such as reporting styles and the use of the words colored and Negro). The book has a definite pro-evolution slant to it. The anti-evolution characters are shown as a little crazy and, often hypocritical. Or taking the stance for a reason that has nothing to do with the issues at hand.

Bryant's account of the trial is one where Scopes was really just arrested because the town elders wanted the media circus that would inevitably surround such a trial in an effort to increase tourism to Dayton. The best voices are those of the children--3 high school students and one African-American boy and how the trial changes them. Often, it's not so much about evolution, but just the contact with the so many new faces and ideas gets them thinking in new ways about their futures.

see all my reviews: www.tushuguan.blogspot.com ( )
1 vote kidsilkhaze | Oct 20, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375840478, Hardcover)

The year is 1925, and the students of Dayton, Tennessee, are ready for a summer of fishing, swimming, some working, and drinking root beer floats at Robinson’s Drugstore. But when their science teacher, J. T. Scopes, is arrested for having taught Darwin’s theory of evolution in class, it seems it won’t be just any ordinary summer in Dayton.
As Scopes’ trial proceeds, the small town is faced with astonishing, nationwide publicity: reporters, lawyers, scientists, religious leaders, and tourists. But amidst the circus-like atmosphere is a threatening sense of tension–not only in the courtroom, but among even the strongest of friends. This compelling novel in poems chronicles a controversy with a profound impact on science and culture in America–and one that continues to this day.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:04 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Visitors, spectators, and residents of Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925 describe, in a series of free-verse poems, the Scopes "monkey trial" and its effects on that small town and its citizens.

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