Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial

Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial

4.7 4
by Jen Bryant

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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.
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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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2008:
“The colorful facts she retrieves, the personal story lines and the deft rhythm of the narrative are more than enough invitation to readers to ponder the issues she raises.
Publishers Weekly

Why not break the law and bring in some tourists? Conjuring fictionalized inhabitants of crumbling Dayton, Tenn., home of the infamous Scopes "monkey trial," Bryant (The Trial) lets her characters speak directly, in well-honed verse that illuminates a broad range of perspectives. Overheard near a drugstore soda fountain, scheming business owners and a publicity-chasing superintendent get permission from a popular teacher, J.T. Scopes, to arrest him for violating the Butler Act, which bans the teaching of evolution. Adventure-seeking kids, skeptical journalists, erudite scientists, curious townsfolk and one shrill evangelical all have their say on the ensuing battle between silver-tongued prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and sharp-witted defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Bryant obviously sympathizes with Darrow and the Darwinists, but she doesn't heavily stack the deck: the eloquent insights she attributes to her characters are evenly distributed. Nor does she go out of her way to emphasize the timeliness of the topic. The colorful facts she retrieves, the personal story lines and the deft rhythm of the narrative are more than enough invitation to readers to ponder the issues she raises. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This novel in verse form reminds me of Witness, by Karen Hesse, in that multiple voices describe a single historical event. Ringside 1925 tells about the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, with ten voices--students and adults who live in Dayton--each describing the trial as they witness it, as they see how the trial changes their small town. The arguments about teaching evolution in a science class are surprisingly still echoing around regions of our country today, so this trial is not about some dusty, long-forgotten historical controversy. Last year the YA novel Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, by Ronald Kidd, covered much the same ground. This is, of course, very different since it is told in verse, with the point of view shifting among the ten narrators. One, or both, of these novels should be available to YA readers. Age Range: Ages 12 to 18. REVIEWER: Claire Rosser (Vol. 42, No. 1)
Children's Literature - Sharon Salluzzo
In 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a bill prohibiting the teaching of evolution. When J. T. Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was asked if he would be willing to be arrested to challenge the new law, he agreed. Thus began one of the major trials of the early twentieth century. Bryant creates nine voices who recount the events before, during and after the trial. The characters include high school students, the owner of a boarding house, a twelve-year-old Black boy who works for his father because there is no school for him to attend, a member of the ladies' Bible study group, a minister, and a reporter who has come to town to cover the trial. These characters present their observations and feelings in this thought-provoking novel in free verse. The story is separated into eight chapters, and each chapter is introduced with relevant quotes from actual participants. Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant come to life through the characters' observations. An Epilogue tells what happened to the town and the real people after the trial. The author talks about her research and mentions articles, books, movies, and web sites for further information. Readers are transported back to this small Southern town with its issues of race relations and the Bible vs. evolution. Bryant successfully recreates the setting of the famous "monkey trial." The accessible text makes this a fine choice for a high school biology or history class. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo
School Library Journal

Gr 8 Up- Nothing much happened in Dayton, TN, until the summer of 1925. That was the year that J. T. Scopes, a science teacher at Rhea County High School, asked students to read a chapter on evolution from their textbook. Tennessee had recently passed a law against the teaching of evolution in public schools, and the American Civil Liberties Union was seeking an opportunity to prove that this law was unconstitutional. Mr. Robinson, a local store owner, thought that Scopes could bring publicity to the town and boost its stagnant economy, if he would submit to a trial. The ACLU pledged support, and the teacher found himself in the middle of one of the most controversial trials of the century. What ensued was a circuslike atmosphere that surprised and eventually divided the residents of Dayton. This novel in verse chronicles the events and drama of the trial. There is a host of characters, both fictitious and real: J. T. Scopes (real), William Jennings Bryan (real), Mr. Robinson (real), Clarence Darrow (real), Paul Lebrun (fictitious), and many students and citizens (fictitious). The poems are in first person, giving a voice to all primary stakeholders-the citizens, young and old, who are stunned by the chaos that erupts in their tiny town. The epilogue provides information about the events and the people following the trial. Bryant offers readers a ringside seat in this compelling and well-researched novel. It is fast-paced, interesting, and relevant to many current first-amendment challenges. Students who like this novel will also enjoy Robin Brande's Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature (Knopf, 2007).-Pat Scales, formerly at South Carolina Governor's School for theArts and Humanities, Greenville

Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In 1925, the leading citizens of Dayton, Tenn., created a media circus to revive the sagging economy of their small town. John Scopes, the new science teacher, agreed to be arrested so the American Civil Liberties Union could test the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of any theory that denied the biblical story of the creation. It was faith versus science, and reporters, lawyers and onlookers soon besieged the town. Bryant's novel-in-verse gives voice to many players, and though the theatrics of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the famous orators, seem lost among the many voices, and characters' observations are sometimes repetitive, the participants come across as real individuals with distinct voices and personalities. By the end, the young people demonstrate how the trial opened their eyes and minds, as they seem inspired to launch themselves into the larger world. Eloquent at times and a natural for the classroom, this is a good match with Ronald Kidd's Monkey Town (2006). (epilogue, author's note, bibliography) (Fiction. 11+)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.85(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.91(d)
Age Range:
10 Years

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Read an Excerpt

Peter Sykes
That morning, Jimmy and me had hiked clear to Connor's Pond, halfway up the mountain,
and back again. I hooked four bass

and three brown trout. Jimmy, who loves fishing more than just about anything, caught a dozen bluegills and a huge catfish his mother

promised to fry us for dinner. Soon as we got back, we stashed our poles under the porch and ran to Robinson's store for root beer floats.

We were sitting at the soda fountain,
sucking on our straws and listening to
Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the radio,

when Mr. Walter White asked: "You boys seen
Mr. Scopes?" With school being out and it being summer, we figured the new science teacher must be in trouble. But Mr. White is our school superintendent, so we figured we'd be in bigger trouble if we didn't tell.

"We saw him a half hour ago," I said,
"heading over to the school."
"Dressed for tennis," Jimmy added.

He hurried back to the table where
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Rappleyea waited.
Then the Hicks brothers, both Dayton lawyers,

showed up in their jalopy and all five of them jabbered like magpies at a picnic.

Willy Amos
Those big ol' houses at the edge of town . . .
Pa says they were once grand and beautiful.
Now they're mostly heaps of bricks,
wood planks, broken glass. Some got trees growin' right out the roofs, vines twistin' out the doorways.

Pa says back before I was born, when the mines were open and the furnaces made metal for the railroads and tall city buildin's,
white families lived there--
"lace curtains in the windows, easy chairs an' daisies on the porches in summer," Pa says.

Well, that sure ain't how it looks this summer.
There's skunks in the cellar,
bats in the attic,
mice in the kitchen sink.

When I'm not helpin' Pa, I come here to root through the hallways and closets,
searchin' for somethin' I might be able to fix up and sell--a flower vase,
a tin box, a watch face left behind when those families moved to places where jobs come easier.

'Most every year the town council changes the number on the little wooden sign sayin' how many folks live here:
3,000, 2,600, 2,100, . . . and last year 1,800.

Pa and me, we don't got much need for big numbers. I'm not sure what they mean,
'ceptin' I know that the first one is biggest and the last one is smallest and that means people are leavin'.

Twelve. Now that's a number I'm used to.
I was born here twelve years back:
May 1913. I ain't never lived anyplace but Dayton, Tennessee,
so that last number still seems like plenty of folks to me.

But maybe someday, if I move to a big city like New Orleans, Chicago, or Detroit,
get me a steady job,
I'll live near even more people,
and a lot fewer mice and skunks.

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 Connor'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.

Peter Sykes
I helped Marybeth Dodd with her groceries and told her about Mr. Scopes. "Poor man,"
she said. "If he's a criminal, then I'm Babe Ruth."

We both laughed at the thought of that.
"Thanks a lot, Pete," she said, her smile flashing in the sunlight. "Anytime, Marybeth," I said,

feeling the color rise in my cheeks. I quick pedaled to the end of her street so she didn't see. (What's gotten into me?)

Turning the corner, I rode fast and hard across the tracks, up the hill, till there were no more stores and houses,

just the farms spread out on either side,
like patchwork blankets as far as I could see.
I pedaled faster. Just about the time my thighs ached

and I needed a break, I came to the big oak at the foot of Walton's Ridge. I leaned the bike against the trunk, laced my shoes on tight, hiked

the steep dirt path made by the Cherokee before there even was a Tennessee. At the top,
there's a flat rock called Buzzard's Point, where you

can stand and look out over the Tennessee River Valley,
watch the steam rise from the Southern Railway line as it snakes its way from one end to the other.

Used to be, I'd climb up there to dream about my future . . . running my own hardware store,
settling down with someone from school.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2008:
“The colorful facts she retrieves, the personal story lines and the deft rhythm of the narrative are more than enough invitation to readers to ponder the issues she raises.

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