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Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial

by Jen Bryant

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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 |
This short and highly readable book is about the Scopes "monkey trial" held in Dayton, TN in 1925 in which a high school teacher is accused of breaking a TN law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Scopes was defended by the great lawyer, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant prosecuted the case. The story is told through the eyes of many of the townspeople in short chapters, from various points of view.

The author includes a bibliography at the end, revealing the level of research she performed in order to write this book. This book was written for "tweens"/young teens and Bryant's writing style is engrossing and easy to follow. It made me want to either watch the movie, "Inherit the Wind" or read the book to learn more about the story. It is especially pertinent today given that states and school boards are still fighting the battle over whether to teach evolution, creationism, or intelligent design in public school science classes. ( )
  lrobe190 | Sep 14, 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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:42 -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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