The Trial of the Century as Witnessed by a Teen ; A Teen Novel Revisits the Scopes Monkey Trial

Article excerpt

Tennessee teen Frances Robinson has a crush on a teacher. This wouldn't be newsworthy, except that the teacher in question is John Scopes. It's the summer of 1925, and the people of Dayton have just drafted the football coach to appear as defendant in "The trial of the century."

Everyone who's read or seen "Inherit the Wind," knows what happens next, but that won't stop young readers from enjoying Monkey Town. With debates on the teaching of evolution raging from Kansas to Pennsylvania, it's not surprising that books such as the well- received new biography of William Jennings Bryan and "Monkey Town" are appearing on store shelves.

What is pleasantly shocking is the freshness of the material, since readers could be forgiven for thinking that every sentence of the legal battle between Bryan and Clarence Darrow already had been parsed. For example, I hadn't realized that Scopes wasn't a "real" science teacher, just a coach who substituted for a few days when the biology teacher was out ill. Nor that the whole trial was a publicity stunt, concocted by the town fathers to rescue Dayton from decline.

Frances's father is a leader in this effort, and she finds it hard to forgive him when it becomes apparent that Scopes - as well as her hometown - is going to pay dearly for the tourism bureau's ambitions. "The village Aristides Sophocles Goldboroughs believed that the trial would bring in a lot of money, and produce a vast mass of free and profitable advertising. They were wrong on both counts, as boomers usually are," wrote journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial. "As for the advertising that went out over the leased wires, I greatly fear that it has quite ruined the town. When people recall it hereafter they will think of it as they think of Herrin, Ill., and Homestead, Pa. It will be a joke town at best, and infamous at worst."

Publicity materials claiming that "never has there been a novel for teens about the greatest trial of the 20th century," would no doubt surprise my ninth-grade English teacher. She put "Inherit the Wind" on her calendar, right before a "Romeo and Juliet"/"West Side Story" doubleheader. …