Where I grew up, our family of five children was a small family unit in comparison to our neighbors. There were families of eight, ten, eleven and fourteen all within our community. There were as many ways to support those families as there were children in those families, but no one I ever knew had a more novel approach than Terry Ryan's unbelievably resilient and resourceful mom, Evelyn Ryan, who spent the better part of her life as a mom to ten rather incorrigible kids putting food on the table, money in the bank, and appliances in tiptop shape around the house by entering contests. THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO is the Ryan family saga, told with deference, intelligence, and sincere wit.
With a dad who cared more about drinking than anything else in his household, the Ryans had a tough time eking out their 1950s-era existence with his slim blue collar paycheck. Instead, Evelyn, who had a stalwart wit herself and a talent with words, began writing jingles, entertaining copy, and peppy poems to promote the many different commercial manufacturers who advertised their company's contests on their can labels and cereal boxtops. Evelyn's work is highlighted throughout the book, and her workaday attitude toward "contesting" is as remarkable an achievement as her daughter's wonderful book.
The miracles that Ryan attests to are truly that: that her mom, with a mere pen and some quiet thought each night as the kids were doing their homework, was able to furnish their lackluster home with the best appliances, with food when the larder was empty, with money when the doctors' bills threatened to sink them into bankruptcy --- whenever a crisis appeared, her mother would end up the winner in some contest that provided to the family something they sorely needed. Evelyn comes across as the best possible hybrid of Betty Crocker and Erma Bombeck, and her common sense, patience, and taste are all testaments to her immense achievements as All-American mom. Each of her ten children and even her drunken hubby are all vividly detailed as well in this amazing story. It almost puts the comparably cozy work life of today's working moms to shame.
THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO is an original and very personal story told with grace, love, some incredulousness, and the liberty of those hazy, crazy days of youth when life was a complete adventure; and every reader will hail the personification of Evelyn Ryan as both mother and wordsmith. Terry Ryan has a wonderful way with words as well --- we are glad she wasn't kept to just 25 words or less, or the nuances and compelling details of the Ryans' life would be lost to us.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 4, 2001