When I packed books to read on my trip to East Tennessee last December, I included a copy of Jen Bryant’s new novel in poems, Ringside 1925 (Knopf, Feb. 2008), without thinking about its setting. I cared only about two things: 1) the fact that I loved Jen’s first two novels, and 2) the fact that this book was about the Scopes trial, on which I was due for a refresher course. To this short list of reasons, I should have added the fact that I’d be traveling in the same general region in which the Scopes trial took place. Unfortunately our trip was too short for me to tack a three-hour drive to Dayton onto our brief stay in Johnson City, but after finishing and loving Jen’s novel, I was especially sorry I hadn’t been able to.
Written in prose poems, Ringside 1925 is narrated by several characters, some of them permanent Dayton residents and some visitors who have come to town for the trial that’s attracting national attention. Each member of the story’s ensemble cast speaks in a distinct voice, representing a range of ages, classes, and races, each person having a different tie to the case and a different opinion about how it’s unfolding. As is the case in Karen Hesse’s wonderful novel Witness, the advantage here is that the reader is able to view the same story from several different angles. In less capable hands this might make for cumbersome storytelling, but Bryant keeps the plot moving and keeps the story from becoming overly complicated by its conflicting points of view.
In the end Ringside 1925 reads like the portrait of a small town that’s been caught up, however briefly, in the tide of some BIG questions — questions that are still surfacing and resurfacing today more than 80 years later. In the notes at the end of the book Bryant urges readers wanting to know more about the Scopes trial story to visit the town of Dayton, Tenn. (as she did during her research), and see the places that helped her conjure up visions of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan holding court.
Reading this book in Dayton would have been an extra special treat, as I love reading historical fiction or non-fiction in the place where it all happened, feeling that sense that important history was made on the very spot where you are standing, that you’re seeing the same general horizon line some prominent person once gazed upon. I thought of this "it happened here" feeling the day after Christmas, when Gareth and I stopped in New Hampshire to have lunch with my former landlord and dear friend Larry Howard. Larry’s a 76-year-old landscape painter and devoted history buff. During our visit Larry shared a gem of a story with us about a trip he’d taken to Canada with two friends, on a quest to find an obscure but significant site all of them had read about in the same historical novel. With Larry behind the wheel and his friends navigating, the three of them drove and drove, finding nothing and growing almost hopelessly lost. Finally Larry suggested that he be allowed to look at the map his friends were using, only to learn that they weren’t using a map at all — they were navigating using the historical map and references in the novel!! Larry was flabbergasted. His friends were cowed. Eventually, though, the three found the place they’d been looking for, making it a bit easier to forget that times change, geographies change, and novels contain fiction.
In doing research for my own book I was ridiculously entertained by the discovery of a seafaring map from the 1750’s that had been reprinted in a 20th-century book and labeled with the words "Not to be used for navigation." WHO, I wondered, would be so stupid as to try such a thing?? Now I know the answer!
Thankfully, you don’t have to read Ringside 1925 while in Dayton, Tenn., to enjoy it. But if you decide to make the trip south to do so, I’d recommend picking up/printing out a map before you go.