I recently finished The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, by Terry Ryan. As the book’s cover describes it, this is an amazing true story of “an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the ‘contest era’ of the 1950s and 1960s.” While her husband drank away a large chunk of his small paycheck, Evelyn Ryan put her wit and writing skill to use by entering and winning the promotional contests that were popular at the time. It is truly inspiring to read about this woman’s determination and perseverance in keeping her family not only housed and fed but also nurtured and educated, despite her husband’s alcoholic, selfish, sometimes abusive ways.
The friend who gave me this book asked whether I thought Evelyn Ryan was a “doormat or a lovemat” and the question is really intriguing. From today’s perspective, it is frustrating that Mrs. Ryan did not leave her husband. As the author points out, however, in Mrs. Ryan’s time there were no woman’s shelters; no one spoke of “domestic abuse”; her parish priest drank with her husband and admonished her to “endure” and “keep the family whole.” Even though he drank away a large part of his paycheck, her husband did bring home enough money (usually) to pay the mortgage and many of the bills. A woman in that era would have been hard-pressed to find a job making even that much money and still care for ten children. Furthermore, most of the welfare programs we have today were not in place. In short, Mrs. Ryan and her children very well might have been worse off without Mr. Ryan than with him. This conclusion is very unsatisfying, but it seems to be the one that Mrs. Ryan drew herself.
In reading this book I was struck by the similarities between Mrs. Ryan and “mommy bloggers” of today. In her contest entries, Mrs.
Ryan found both a creative outlet and a way to support her family, all without leaving her ironing board. She also found community with other women who shared the same pursuit and encouraged each other in it. In the same way, many women today find in blogging a way to express themselves, find community and (sometimes) earn money while still staying at home with their children. I am convinced that if Mrs. Ryan were alive today she would be a blogger!
As Mrs. Ryan’s child, the author gives a warm and lively account of her family’s life. The book, however, could have benefited from more rigorous editing or the help of a ghost writer. The story lags as it recounts jingle after jingle after jingle, interspersed with an overabundance of anecdotes about the family pets. The book would be much more interesting if it developed Mrs. Ryan’s character more in the beginning–her family background, the circumstances leading up to her marriage, her conversion to Catholicism. The author addresses these issues more than two-thirds of the way through the book, but by then my attention was beginning to wane.
Nevertheless, this book is definitely worth a read. Recommended!
This book was made into a movie starring Julianne Moore. I plan to watch it, but I would love to hear from anyone who has already seen it.