Monday, June 8, 2009

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

I just finished reading The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan. The subtitle for the book is How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. It was made into a movie not long ago but I haven't seen it yet.

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons. One was the picture of the Ryan family (left) that appears on the book's cover. Another was the subtitle and description of the book on its back cover. My mother is the oldest of 10 children so that was yet another reason. Also, I am sometimes sorry that I missed the 1950's and early 1960's in America. It seems like a simpler time but I think it is because it has become idealized that way.

In fewer than 350 pages, Terry Ryan tells her family's story in a completely down-to-earth manner but without becoming sordid. The truth was that their father was an alcoholic -- sometimes violent and always difficult when he was drinking. He spent roughly $30 of his $90 a week salary on drink initially and eventually even more. But his alcoholism is merely a backdrop for the real story.

Their mother, Evelyn Ryan, was a contester. She entered every jingle, slogan and other contest she could to help make ends meet. With 10 kids, she could not work outside the home and so she spent every spare minute she had entering the Burma Shave, Dial, Dr. Pepper, Beech Nut Gum and other contest that she possibly could often entering multiple times under various versions of her name and her children's names. On average, she won at least some prize in 1 out of every 4 contests that she entered. Sometimes these wins were significant and, in one case, kept the family from foreclosure.

In the face of extreme difficultly, Evelyn triumphed over and over again. She had a buoyancy of spirit, a sense of humor and a love of her children that drove her against fantastically long odds to persevere in spite of it all. I find it hard to explain fully why I liked this book so well. I always enjoy a good true story but this one could so easily have drifted into maudlin territory and it never did. It has a "just the facts, ma'am" style but still maintains a warm family feeling to it at the same time.

Evelyn Ryan passed away in 1998 and her daughter, the author of the book, Terry Ryan, lost her life to Stage IV brain cancer in 2007. Go get the book and read it.

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