Monday, June 16, 2008

Jen Bryant's "Ringside, 1925"

Jen Bryant teaches Children’s Literature at West Chester University and lives in Pennsylvania. She has published poetry, biographies for young readers, and picture books.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial, and reported the following:
At a poetry reading I attended several years ago, Robert Pinsky observed that “real life is much more interesting than anything I could ever make up.” As a poet, biographer and author of historical novels, I couldn’t agree more. Human behavior remains endlessly fascinating and human history chock full of the ironies, tensions and contradictions that make up the core of great stories.

In my latest novel Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial (Knopf, 2008, ages 12 to adult) I blend real historical events and personalities with fictional ones to place the reader inside the courtroom during one of the most famous and controversial trials in American history—the Scopes “Monkey” trial. As in my previous book, The Trial (Knopf 2004) which focuses on the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder trial, I wrote the book in free verse poetry and did extensive research into the facts and history of the case. Readers learn, for example, that getting the Scopes trial to be held in Dayton was the brainchild of five Dayton businessmen, who hatched their plan in the local drugstore, hoping to bolster the failing local economy. They also learn that John T. Scopes, the popular first-year science teacher who was “arrested” and accused of teaching evolution in a public school classroom, remained a silent spectator at the trial as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow faced off over the science vs. religion issue before the media and a sea of curious on-lookers.

Because Ringside’s nine narrators differ in age, gender, ethnicity, religious background, social class, and education, the reader experiences the events of the trial through several distinct voices. For this reason alone, my initial reaction to the “page 99 test” was “no way that one page can be a lens into the larger story.” But guess what? Ford Madox Ford and Marshal Zeringue are onto something here. Below is the complete text of page 99, as well as a little from the next page (I felt it only fair, since this particular narrator speaks in very, very short lines!) in which Jimmy Lee Davis, a local high school student, talks about the things he loves. While there’s nothing about the trial here, Jimmy’s vernacular speech and his preoccupation with baseball and church (and his rather astute comparison of the two) do, indeed, suggest a time and a place where a trial over the evolution controversy certainly could—and did—occur.

Jimmy Lee Davis

Next to God

& fishing, I love

baseball best.


the Yankees.

I never been

to New York,

(heck, I been no

farther than

Morgan Springs)

but I root for

the Yanks

on account of

Lou Gehrig.

This year

their manager

put Gehrig

at first base

to replace

Wally Pipp

& so far he’s

batting .428

& he’s aiming

for .450 or I’m

a catfish!!

It’s heaven when

I’m sitting at the

soda fountain,

listening to the

crack of Gehrig’s

bat, the roar

of the crowd

on the radio.

I imagine going

to the games

is a lot like

going to church:

people get

dressed up, leave

their homes

& come together

in one big place--

they do a lot of

standing up,

sitting down

& when their

team’s behind,

they do some

praying, too.

There’s even

organ music!

Ringside 1925 entertains as it invites readers to ponder the science vs. religion debate that remains alive even today.
Read an excerpt from Ringside, 1925. For educators and book groups, both the author and the publisher provide additional reading suggestions and websites as well as a downloadable discussion guide.

--Marshal Zeringue