Book Review: Ringside 1925 by Jen Bryant

Remember learning about the Scopes Monkey trial in history class? The trial pitted the state of Tennessee against a high school science teacher, J.T. Scopes, who challenged the legality of the state’s rule against teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant brings the event to life in a way that your history book never could.

The story is told through the voices of several characters, mainly three students from the high school where Mr. Scopes taught. You also hear from a reporter who’s in town covering the trial, the town’s constable, a member of the ladies’ Bible study group, and a preacher from out of town who comes in to see the event. Little Dayton, Tennessee, is transformed into a veritable circus of activity.

There are lots of characters in the book, but Bryant helps the reader keep them straight with a list of narrators at the front. I referred back to the list in the beginning, until I had gotten to know the characters well.

Because Ringside 1925 presents different sides of the story, it gives you lots to think about and discuss. Friendships are tested as the characters talk about their beliefs, and everyone steps out of their usual roles even if only for a few weeks.

It’s interesting to hear the perspective of a young black boy who works with his father as a handyman and dreams of rising beyond the limitations put on him. It’s also interesting to read actual quotes from the trial by lawyers and historical greats William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

I loved being transported back to small town life in 1925, and hearing stories of how the townspeople of Dayton benefitted financially from all the extra visitors.

We never really hear the voice of J.T. Scopes, and it seems appropriate that we see the trial from the perspectives of all those around him. The event was less about him than it was about teaching evolution in school—a conflict that continues on in some cases today.

The story is aimed at ages 12 and up, but I think some younger children will certainly be able to appreciate the very approachable story and learn about the historical case at the same time. I’ve also recommended it to my daughter who’s a senior in high school, because I think the writing is interesting to all ages. I’ve heard about the Scopes Trial for years, and occasionally hear it mentioned, but this book brought it to life for me. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs.

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