Fuse #8

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review of the Day: Monkey Town

You know what the bane of a children's librarian's life is? Well-written middle reader titles. You know what I mean. They're those charming tomes with protagonists that are young teens. These books are written with a very definite readership in mind and they are a nightmare to deal with collectionwise. If your local library has a children's section AND a teen section, where do you put a book like, "Monkey Town"? It's so incredibly well-written with interesting facts and some amazing plotting that you're inclined to put it in the children's room. Then again, the character is obviously a teen and we're dealing with some pretty heavy topics in this novel. Evolution. The existence of God. Small town life vs. big city snobbery. This is a coming of age novel in the best sense of the term, but it makes my life a misery. It would have been so much easier to catalogue had the book been badly written or boring. Then I could have just urged the Powers That Be not to purchase it at all. Instead, I'll reluctantly hand it to the Young Adult librarians in my branch and pray that tweens and early teens find it lurking there. Cause until our libraries start creating Middle Reader Librarians and rooms, books like "Monkey Town" will be straddling two entirely different readerships.

Frances luuuvs Johnny. Johnny Scopes, that is. Heard of him? Well he's the young college kid who graduated and took a post in fifteen-year-old Frances's high school. She thinks he's dreamy, but he treats her more like a kid sister than the sophisticated dame she'd like to be. Frances loves Johnny but there are other problems apart from their age difference. You see, Frances's father is Frank Earle Robinson, owner of Robinson's Drugs. One day, Mr. Robinson and some of the town leaders come up with a scheme that'll get the city of Dayton, Tennessee a little more publicity. You see, the state of Tennessee makes it illegal to teach evolution in schools. Now the ACLU wants a Tennessee teacher to be a test case that can bring this law to the courts. Mr. Robinson and his friends want that someone to be Johnny Scopes. He taught the kids evolution in the last year, didn't he? Reluctantly Johnny agrees, but only with the given understanding that he'll keep his job in the end. Still, nobody could expect the maelstrom of activity that is brought to bear on this formerly sleepy burg once the trial approaches. And for Frances, the influx of folks from out of town means that she's exposed to new thoughts and ideas. Maybe evolution and creation are not diametrically opposed. Maybe her father isn't as great a guy as she thought he was. And maybe even in a small homey town like Dayton, there's a lot of nastiness that lurks deep in the hearts of even the "nicest" of people.

"Inherit the Wind" for the kiddie set? Not exactly. The real focus of this novel is on Frances herself. Through her eyes we get to meet all the major players in the Scopes Trial. For example, she hangs out with Johnny for fun and through him meets the larger-than-life H.L. Mencken. Author Ronald Kidd really is at his best when he gives us Mencken, writ large. The man's as pompous and vile-spewing as ever, but with more ugly truths and conflicting tendernesses than you'd find in your average historical fiction for the kiddies. We also meet the great William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, each in their own peculiar particular way. Incorporating real historical figures into a children's book can sometimes feel forced or awkward. Not here. The advantage that, "Monkey Town" has over its historical fiction fellows is the character of Frances Robinson herself. Based on a real woman of the same name, Kidd explains in his Author's Note how he came to meet Ms. Robinson and which parts of this story were true, and which his own. This lends an authenticity to the novel, to say nothing of Kidd's own skills at incorporating the believable with the possible.

Truth be told, this really is a story about Frances. It's the old story of a small-town girl curious about the greater world around her. By the end of the book you're sure that soon Frances will get out of Dayton and see the wider world. Maybe she'll go to college! It's with a bittersweet afterthought, then, that one reads the story of the read Frances Robinson. She never left Dayton but instead married the local high school football coach. After a book showing her growth and maturity, it seems more than a little sad to find that the facts of the matter don't line up with the story the author told. That's nobody's fault, of course. It just shows how inconvenient the truth can sometimes be.

What Kidd does so well with this book is allow the reader to make up their own mind on the evolution debate. He isn't preaching anymore than Frances is. We see the good and bad of both sides of the debate and are allowed to reason out how we feel as a result. Maybe that's the real beauty of, "Monkey Town". While Frances is dealing with a too too complicated world, we also are seeing the dimensions and two-sides of every character. And Kidd cleverly makes us challenge our own assumptions, even going so far as to play on our worst instincts when it comes to Frances's father. For quite some time he comes off as a particularly well-aligned villain, only to be redeemed in a wholly believable way by the end.

If I had to come up with a problem I had with the book, maybe it would involve the factual aspects of the story. I would have loved a nice Bibliography at the back. Failing that, maybe a section outlining exactly what was true and what wasn't with a little more certainty. Instead we get a nice section in which Kidd thanks a whole host of people but doesn't refer us elsewhere. Kids wanting to learn more about the Scopes Trial will have to seek out books and websites on their own, I fear. A bit of a pity.

Small potatoes, though. After all, there are plenty of well-cited works of historical fiction out there that haven't half the guts and gall of this little number. A remarkable story, a great book, and definitely a piece of worthwhile reading. Kidd really does harness the innate drama of the real trial for all he's worth. Now to figure out where to put it in my library.... hm....


At 12:54 AM , Blogger Greg Pincus said...

I'm a huge fan of Ronald Kidd, but for a totally bizarre reason: he did the novelization of one of my movies! I've also run into his name in other areas/genres/age-groups in the kidlit world, but what's great about seeing you like his novel is simply that it proves that good writers are good writers no matter what they've been doing to hone their skills.

At 12:09 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I agree. Especially when you consider that my husband, a good writer, is trying to break into commercial Hollywood himself. Ah, sweet commercially viable works.


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