April 11, 2007

Book Review: Monkey Town by Ronald Kidd


I just finished reading Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial by Ronald Kidd. This was another coming of age novel. It is supposed to be part love story, as well, but the love story is very lightly applied. It is more of an afterthought and seemed like it was there solely to get more girls to read it.

Kidd claims he wrote this book based on the true accounts he heard from Frances Robinson about her life in the town of Dayton during the Scopes Monkey Trials of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. He does share that Frances was actually only eight years old when this happened, although in the book, she is portrayed as being 15. He obviously thought this story would appeal more to teens, and he is probably right.

In our story, Frances Robinson is a precocious 15-year old who is in love with Johnny Scopes, a teacher at her high school. Johnny Scopes is one of those young (24 years old), cool teachers who breaks the rules of establishment only to pay for them later. He is a football coach but ends up substituting for a period of time in a biology class. While filling in for the teacher, Scopes decided to cover the topic of evolution (an illegal action in the state of Tennessee at that time) since it was in the official textbook. Frances's father, F.E. Robinson, decides to use this scandal to try to get some publicity for his beloved town. F.E. is a drugstore owner who sells Coca-Cola, claiming the drink has medicinal powers to make more money.

F.E. asks Scopes to go under trial for teaching evolution as a publicity stunt. He promises nothing bad will come out of it. All Scopes has to do is admit he taught evolution, allow himself to go through a fake arrest, and the town will take care of the rest. Scopes agrees.

The publicity comes rolling in all right, but not all of it is positive. Two very famous men end up being the lawyers for both sides. Tons of newspapers send representatives to cover the story. The journalist we get to know the best is H.L Mencken who wrote a lot of derogatory remarks about the townspeople. He considered them yokels. Mencken was a real journalist who attended the trials, and many of his article excerpts are included in between chapters of the book.

Frances is portrayed as a young woman with torn loyalties. On the one hand, she loves Johnny Scopes. She knows he is a good and kind person that she cares for a lot. On the other hand, she has always looked up to her father and all he represents. Now she sees he has faults: he is money hungry. What's worse, he is using the man he she loves to get free publicity. She also begins to questions the faith of her fellow churchgoers. Why are they so sure that evolution is wrong and the Bible is completely right? It seems like everyone is blindly accepting that it should be illegal to teach evolution. Everyone is against Johnny Scopes, and Frances has to decide what she truly believes.

For me, the story had a good pace and kept me reading. I didn't feel too connected to any of the characters. I did enjoy this book for the historical content. The court scenes were taken from transcripts of the actual trials so it was an interesting read in that light. I would recommend this to a middle school girl who needed to read a historical fiction book for school.

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