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Ona Russell Publishes Evolution-Themed Mystery

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger’s Thursday, Oct. 02, 2008 at 6:45 AM (619) 688-1886 P. O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Mystery writer Ona Russell's latest book, "The Natural Selection," takes her female detective Sarah Kaufman to Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 for a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Scopes trial, the attempt by the radical Right of the day to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. The book deals not only with the progressive implications of the theory of evolution but also its racist and classist outgrowths, social Darwinism and the eugenics movement, and the way the Ku Klux Klan made common cause with evolution advocates to advance their racist agenda.

Ona Russell Publishe...
russell.a.jpg, image/jpeg, 1197x1352

Ona Russell Introduces New Book at Public Library

Mystery Takes 1925 Scopes Evolution Trial as Real-Life Inspiration


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 1925, the battle over whether evolution or creationism should be taught in U.S. public schools — and the wider conflict over whether the U.S. was a “Christian nation” and should therefore be governed by Biblical principles — raged as fiercely as they do now. That year, the nation was riveted by the trial of teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee for violating that state’s recently passed Anti-Evolution Law and teaching evolutionary theory to his high-school class. Staged as a test case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to get the law declared unconstitutional and discourage other states from passing similar bills, the trial attracted celebrity attorneys on both sides — three-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan as prosecutor and Clarence Darrow as lead defense counsel — as well as the legendary reporter H. L. Mencken, whose articles on the case openly ridiculed the radical Christian Right of the day and its pretensions.

The Scopes trial has lived on in histories, biographies of the principals, in dramatizations — including one staged every year in Dayton as well as a 1950’s Broadway play, Inherit the Wind, that became a hit movie — and now as the backdrop for an historical mystery novel called The Natural Selection by Solana Beach author Ona Russell. Russell didn’t set out to be a mystery writer; she studied literature at Clark University and got a Ph.D. at UCSD (and incidentally was the victim of plagiarism by her thesis advisor, an incident she drew on in her new book). She taught for years in various colleges and universities, offering courses in topics like “Literature and the Law,” “Poetry and the Workplace” and “The Truth in Historical Fiction,” and then almost inadvertently stumbled on an opportunity to put the ideas she’d been teaching into action as an author herself.

That came when she discovered the historical figure of Judge O’Brien O’Donnell, a celebrated real-life Ohio jurist who also happened to be Russell’s husband’s grandfather. Based on one of O’Donnell’s real-life cases, Russell wrote the novel O’Brien’s Desk, described on her Web site as “shaped by the explosively paradoxical forces of the 1920’s: corruption, sexual promiscuity and bigotry on the one hand, the highest ideals of the Progressive reformers on the other.” To serve as her central “sleuth” character, Russell searched for a real-life woman detective and found her in Sarah Kaufman — though Russell has given her a life far different from her real one — and The Natural Selection is the second in a series in which Russell plans to move Kaufman around the country and get her involved in cases based on actual historical trials of the 1920’s. (She’s already planned a third, to be set in Los Angeles in 1927 and based on the same real-life incidents that inspired Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! and the recent film based on it, There Will Be Blood.)

According to Russell, the Scopes trial was originally an attempt by the city fathers of Dayton to stage a media event that would bring money to their financially strapped city. “It’s a little unclear whether Scopes actually taught the lesson on evolution” — one account had him out sick on the day a substitute teacher read the lesson from the state-approved textbook, Hunter’s Civic Biology — “but they made him the patsy,” Russell explained. She also discussed the contradictions in the character of William Jennings Bryan, who as a presidential candidate in 1896, 1900 and 1908 had been strongly progressive — anti-corporate and anti-imperialist — “but as time went on he became tied to a religious Fundamentalist ideology,” she said. “He was an immensely powerful orator, beloved in small towns like Dayton.”

Once Bryan agreed to prosecute the case, Clarence Darrow, a prominent criminal attorney whose career had had its own reversals and comebacks — he won a reputation in the 1890’s and 1900’s defending labor organizers at a time when forming a union was itself illegal, then was accused of attempting to bribe a juror in a controversial case in 1911 and forced back to a local practice in Chicago — agreed to join the ACLU’s defense team and volunteered his services for the only time in his career. The third real-life celebrity involved in the case, H. L. Mencken, was, Russell explained, “a celebrated journalist known for pithy aphorisms and also a literary critic, very influential in bringing out authors like Theodore Dreiser.”

Perhaps because of their shared backgrounds as literary critics, Mencken emerged as the most significant of the real-life characters in Russell’s novel. She was helped by the fact that Mencken’s voice was available on a CD issue of an interview he did in 1940, eight years before he died. “I listened to his voice so I could get the cadences of his speech and replicate them,” Russell said. Asked more generally how she gets into a period so she can reproduce it believably, Russell said, “I try to immerse myself [in the era] as much as possible. The 1920’s are easier [than periods further back in history] because there are cultural resources and films. You try to get in the consciousness of the period, but you’re limited. That’s why I’m considering writing a contemporary novel.”

Not that the 1920’s don’t have resonances in contemporary reality; indeed, one reason Russell has chosen that decade for both her published novels and the third one she’s working on are set then is because there are parallels between the 1920’s and the 2000’s. “You had two pro-business presidents, major oil speculators out of control, anti-immigrant sentiment, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the banning of books,” Russell explained. “You had a rethinking of gender roles, with women going out, partying and realizing they could enjoy sex as much as men. You also had ‘reformers’ organizing against that and telling poor people they had to be chaste.” Russell added that she found Mencken a perfect character to use to draw the parallels between the 1920’s and our own time because many of his famous quotes seem like things that could be written today — including one Mencken aphorism she used: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, unique and wrong.”

Russell also said that “because I’m interested in the intersection of literature and the law, I’ve decided to use a famous [real-life] trial as the backdrop for each of my books.” Her ultimate ambition is to use Sarah Kaufman as a character in a book set in each of America’s 50 states — her inspiration was Sue Grafton’s use of each letter of the alphabet, in sequence, as the title of a book, though as one audience member joked picking the states means Russell can write almost twice as many books as Grafton (whose fans are already starting to get anxious as her series approaches Z).

At the beginning of The Natural Selection, Russell explained, Sarah Kaufman “is traveling to Dayton to visit her cousin, who’s a teacher in a university in a town near Dayton. A colleague of the cousin is murdered, and Sarah discovers documents that lead her to the Scopes trial. She meets H. L. Mencken and he helps her solve the mystery.” Against this basic plot, she works in the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the Scopes trial — where the lawn in front of the courthouse turned into a sideshow with real monkeys as well as people in ape suits serving “simian sodas” — as well as the way William Jennings Bryan’s image changed from progressive crusader to Fundamentalist moralist and the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which revived after the release of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and by the 1920’s had virtually absolute political power in Indiana and was strong not only in the South but throughout the country.

Indeed, the Klan’s peculiar combination of Right-wing politics and flamboyant ritual proved irresistible to Russell. “My book has Klan thinking and Darwinism coming together,” she explained. “The Klan of the 1920’s was even more racist than the original [of the 1870’s] and also more dedicated in its hate.” They provided the muscle behind a movement that had a sophisticated ideology attached to it: eugenics, a mass movement whose history Russell draws on in her book. The idea behind eugenics that humans should consciously direct their own evolution by encouraging “superior” individuals to breed while preventing the so-called “feeble-minded” from reproducing at all — and many supposedly enlightened liberals of the period supported laws calling for forced sterilization of unmarried mothers, people of color and people with mental illnesses or low IQ’s. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a forced-sterilization eugenic law from Virginia in 1927 — and one of the Court’s most liberal justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote the majority opinion. Eugenics fell into disrepute only after World War II and the discovery that the Nazis had used eugenic ideas to justify the Holocaust.

By bringing Darwinism and the Ku Klux Klan together in her book, Russell is addressing one of the most bizarre ironies of the Scopes trial. Today, opposition to teaching evolution in the public schools is primarily a phenomenon of the modern conservative alliance of evangelical Christians with pro-business libertarian supporters of lassiez-faire capitalism. In the 1920’s the battle lines were quite different. Bryan himself was a phenomenon inconceivable in modern-day politics — a social conservative who was also an economic and foreign-policy liberal — and it was his hatred of “social Darwinism,” the philosophy that inequalities of wealth and income occurred because the rich were simply superior human beings and their appearance was a triumph of evolution, that led him to oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution itself. Meanwhile, as Russell notes, racists and other reactionaries had their own reasons to embrace Darwin and his theories — though Scopes’ defense team came from the ACLU, then as now considered a liberal organization, and Darrow’s defense of labor leaders and workers’ rights to organize unions in the 1890’s and 1900’s had put him on the same side, politically, as Bryan.

“I have my character talk about ‘social Darwinism,’ and that’s where it gets complex because my protagonist is against social Darwinism and is trying to stop the forced sterilization of women” for eugenic purposes, Russell said. “I’m very conscious of being true to the trial” — virtually all of the dialogue in her description of the court proceedings comes from the actual transcripts — “and to Darwinist thought and using the science correctly. Darwin was misused and misconstrued, yet even in The Origin of Species there are passages that could be construed as in favor of eugenics. Mencken was theoretically a believer in eugenics, and supposedly an anti-Semite, but I saw him as a complex guy with a lot of Jewish friends. When you read a lot of this stuff, it becomes more complex, and I wanted my protagonist to work through that stuff.”

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