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Dayton is a sleepy little town nestled in the mountains of Tennessee. It is long across and about two miles wide. Despite being the home of Bryan College, a school with over 800 students from around the world, it clings persistently to its small-town feel. The local librarians know the gossip on almost everyone and a trip to Wal Mart inevitably becomes a socializing experience. The “big cities” of Hixson and Chattanooga offer malls, movie theaters, and museums when local entertainment proves uninspiring. McDonalds is the hot-spot for post-prom parties and live gospel music on Thursday nights. It is the sort of community where moonshine making, tobacco chewing, Confederate flag flying teens park next to tiny, wrinkled old ladies who live in tumbled down houses and thoughtfully recall their graduation from Bryan College, fifty years ago. People tend to come to Dayton and just never leave. Local attractions include Harmony House (an adorable little cafe that grinds its own coffee and closes at six o’clock on weekdays) and SnowBiz (I heartily recommend the Bryan Lion with cream, best snow cone I’ve ever had). Overall, it is your typical little Tennessee town that probably would have disappeared years ago if it weren’t for one very important event. In 1925, the community leaders of Dayton decided to host the “debate of the century”…in a court room. The Scopes Trial fired the evolution v. creation debate in the United States and brought national attention to one tiny little town. Though relatively forgotten by most of the world, Dayton persistently clings to the memory of that momentous summer. The novel Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial by Ronald Kidd reviews the beginning and events of the trial through the eyes of a fifteen year old girl. It is a coming of age novel about the struggles of learning, growing, and first love. Frances Robinson attends Rhea County High school and works at her Dad’s drugstore. She also is madly in love with her teacher, John T. Scopes. She wears her hair short, plays the piano, and believes her Dad in infallible. That is, until the city leaders cook up a plan to put Dayton on the map and Scopes on the witness stand. Suddenly, Dayton is submerged with sneering reporters, fast talking preachers, and monkeys dressed in suits. Quaint Dayton is suddenly “Monkey Town”, the laughing stock of the U.S. She discovers that maybe her Dad isn’t so honest and begins to doubt the truth of the Bible. After all, if scientist say it is inaccurate, could the Scriptures really be true? And can a town be good when it puts a man on trial for publicity? Monkey Town surprised me. It is a well-written book. The writing style is enjoyable for its intended teenage audience and Kidd does a good job representing the trial. He portrays the town and people of Dayton kindly and, I think, fairly. In fact, if the book stuck to the trial, it might have been really good. But Kidd attempts a coming of age story in his rendition of the trial, something in the flavor of To Kill A Mockingbird, and that is where he goes wrong. It is not necessarily in how he forms Francis’s transformation, but in the rather pulled-together way he does it. The first problem is Francis’s crush on John Scopes. While a teenage girl probably would like her handsome young teacher, Kidd has obviously never been a fifteen-year-old girl with a crush. She’s so…logical about it. Maybe two or three times, she pictures their future together and spends a few paragraphs contemplating their coming lives, throws in a sentence or two about his blond hair, but otherwise seems to set her crush aside in watching the preceding. She doesn’t seem to upset about his leaving for the summer, or for forever. She allows annoying, nagging worries to puzzle her about how they were “ruining him as a man”…allowing for convenient conversations and “thought monologues” about truth and goodness and the Bible. None of them are that compelling.The second problem with the book is that Francis is, frankly, an unreliable narrator. What I mean by that is, despite Kidd’s generally fair coverage of the situation, there is an inherent bias neatly hidden in Francis’s “coming of age.” She’s “one of them” (a person of Dayton, a “Christian”) but because of her love of Scopes, doubts. And because she “doubts” she sees…the truth? Well, so we’re led to believe. By the end, Francis has pondered the deep issues of life and come to her own satisfying conclusions. Excuse me if I am skeptical of how easy it all is. What makes a book like To Kill A Mockingbird great? Scout, while growing up, realizes she doesn’t have all the answers and that adulthood is a lot harder than it looks. Not so with Francis. Francis tells her Father she believes a little of Christianity and a little of evolution and is quite satisfied with that. She makes up with her friend, fixes her relationship with her family by standing firm on her new beliefs, and ponders the complexity of people when considering the journalist H.L. Mencken. The Francis we are introduced to at the beginning of the book has a shallow faith and an “innocent outlook” on life. Her “struggle” to let go of her “comfortable blanket of truths” (like, the Bible being infallible) is hardly a struggle, and by the end, Francis has simply switched her beliefs to another un-proven and rather shallow stance. There is something trite about Francis’s “coming of age.” Perhaps the problem is Monkey Town tries to reveal truths about life and growing up, but only manages to make it half-way. In many ways, Dayton hasn’t changed much since 1925. The courthouse now has a statue of William Jennings Bryan out front and a war memorial where anxious reporters once stood. Wal Mart has replaced Robinson’s Drug store but Baylor High school is still Rhea County’s rival. There is one important difference though. Something that might have benefited fifteen-year-old Frances Robinson a great deal, and actually did change the real Francis Robinson’s life. It’s a school on a hill, a school built at the recommendation of William Jennings Bryan. Now, I admit, I’m a little partial to Bryan College. I go there. I live in a dorm called Robinson, named after the F.E. Robinson, the real Francis Robinson’s Father. But William Jennings Bryan, and the men who founded what was originally known as William Jennings Bryan University, realized that the Scopes Trials was more than a publicity stunt. It was more than a bunch of southern hicks putting a biology teacher on trial for teaching against the beliefs of the Bible Belt. It was more than trying a law on the Tennessee books. The Scopes Trial was a clash of ideologies. Not all Christians were or are the fickle, rather shallow, people presented in this book. They sought Truth and defense of the Truth. Monkey Town is not a book I would go out of my way to recommend. It was, frankly, a good attempt at something deep that concluded weakly. It is well-written and a book teenagers will appreciate. But it is not excellent. It is accurate in a factual way, but missing when it comes to several key elements about those who hosted the trial and why they did it. It is, simply, a nice book that misses the point.

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