Children's author re-creates town during Scopes Trial
Monday, April 3, 2006
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ronald Kidd knows readers are going to want him to take sides in the current evolution debate being argued in schools and courts across the country.
After all, his new novel for young people is about the 1925 Scopes Trial, which pitted science against the biblical story of creation in a hyped-up show trial in east Tennessee.
But Kidd's book isn't about settling an argument.
Instead, he wants "Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial" to re-create a moment in history through the eyes of a teenage girl -- without the burden of a political or religious message.
"What I was trying to do ... was to have the reader realize that the truth is not always an easy thing," Kidd says. "It's not simple. It's complicated, and usually both sides have something to offer."
Readers seem to like the approach. "Monkey Town" was released in February and is in its second printing, although publisher Simon & Schuster declined to say how many copies have sold. The School Library Journal called it "a wonderful piece of literature."
Kidd's heroine is Frances Robinson, the 15-year-old daughter of drug store owner F.E. Robinson, one of the Dayton men responsible for dreaming up the idea to put high school teacher John T. Scopes on trial for teaching evolution. The trial, a publicity stunt, was designed to attract national attention and boost the struggling economy in Dayton, a small town about 30 miles north of Chattanooga.
Frances is based on a real person, Frances Robinson Gabbert, who was only 8 during the trial, but remembered seeing the spectacle in her hometown. Kidd met Gabbert in 1994 and considered turning her stories into a historical memoir, but she died two years later before he had the chance.
So he created a historical novel instead, changing Frances' age, imagining a conflict with her father and an adolescent crush on Scopes. But her spirit in the novel remains true to life, Kidd says.
"Monkey Town" is Kidd's first attempt at historical fiction and his first novel for young readers after a 15-year hiatus to write adult plays and musicals. Kidd won praise in the 1980s from the School Library Journal in the for his mystery, "Sizzle & Splat." Another title in the "Sizzle & Splat" series was nominated for an Edgar Award for best young adult mystery in 1989.
Kidd says that writing for the theater was rewarding, but he was frustrated by the struggle to get them produced. So he returned to young adult books a changed writer.
"When I came back to writing books, I found myself writing a very different kind of book -- a lot more ambitious and serious. For that reason I'm glad I did it," he says.
In "Monkey Town," Frances has been raised to believe in the Bible as literal truth. But she is shocked by how the townspeople, the media and lawyers take advantage of Scopes for their own ends.
"Most kids, when they're teenagers, have a crisis of some kind that causes them to look at their beliefs and who they are and start thinking about things in a different way," Kidd says. "Usually, they go out into the world to get that. With Frances, the world came to her."
Legendary Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken covered the actual trial and appears as a character in "Monkey Town." Even though his accounts of the trial mock Dayton for its ignorance, Frances begins to appreciate his redeeming qualities, such as a love for the piano. She tells her father that the reporters were right about Scopes being unable to get a fair trial in the town: "They're against evolution. They've already made up their minds."
Kidd spent a year-and-a-half researching the trial, meeting with Gabbert's son, Craig, and retired Bryan College history and English professor Richard Cornelius, and visiting the H.L. Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. He also draws on a number of accounts of the trial, such as Edward Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion."
In some ways, the book is written in the shadow of "Inherit the Wind," the famous Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play -- later turned into a 1960 movie -- that dramatizes the trial, with Clarence Darrow defending evolution against William Jennings Bryan. Kidd is critical of "Inherit the Wind," saying it's not historically accurate and unfairly paints Bryan in a simplistic light.
Cornelius acknowledged that the court dialogue in "Monkey Town" is accurate, as well as the hysteria that enveloped the town during the 1925 trial, but he questioned Kidd's efforts to balance both sides in the book.
"I told him, 'Now you're entitled to your position, but I thought you gave too many of the good lines to Scopes' defense and not enough to Bryan,"' Cornelius said.
Bryan College in Dayton, a Christian school that teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible's creation story, was started as a memorial to Bryan, who died shortly after the trial. The school library contains special collections related to Bryan, Mencken and the Scopes trial.
"I have mixed feelings (about the book)," Cornelius said. "But ... I'm glad he did it. I know he worked very hard to verify the accuracy of even little points."