Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (Terry Ryan)

I had to let go of part of my modern day cynicism to really enjoy this remarkable and sincere book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. (It was even harder given that I had read Shadow Divers right before this, as the tone and style are complete opposites, but I enjoyed both books immensely.) During the 1950s, Evelyn Ryan, mother of 10 children, wife of an alcoholic who doesn’t do a very good job supporting their family, manages to keep her family afloat with her prize-winning entries, poems, and stories that always seem to save the day at just the right time. The jingles and rhyming poems may seem so different from modern-day advertising, but then, when I thought about it, we don't have to go back too far to find something similar (“Confident! Confident! Dry and secure! Raise your hand! Raise your hand if you Sure!”). Here’s an example from the book of a poem Evelyn Ryan wrote that was published in a newspaper:

Lawn No Time See

When I survey
My barren plot. . .
Long stamping ground
For tyke and tot . . .
I must conclude
It’s clear (alas)
One cannot grow
Both kids and grass!

Evelyn comes across a group of women who are also “contestants.” (This word may look familiar for those of you who read the review of Cookoff. There is a neat bit of overlap between the two books: Ryan mentions that a women in her contesting group was once a Bake-off finalist.) Contesting may seem like an obscure hobby to us, but it was a big deal at the time with companies promoting products through the contests by supplying blank entry forms at the grocery stores and requiring a proof of purchase, be it a label from a jar or a barcode, with each entry.

Along with the main story, this book is also full of nostalgic anecdotes, such as their pet baby chick who doesn't think he's a chicken because he was raised by a maternal cat, the same cat who can open doors by herself. Some may find the stories of the crazy antics/accidents of the 10 siblings unbelievable, such as the time Terry Ryan, the author, was left at home to babysit her younger siblings: the fixtures on the tub broke while they were filling it with scalding water so hot no one could reach in to unplug the tub. At the same time Terry tries to deal with that disaster, one of her brothers set fire to a moldy mattress in the basement. But I could imagine these things happening: my dad is the oldest out of nine children, and I’ve heard some pretty good tales from their house, including one story about one of his brothers falling through the floor of the second floor of the house and landing on the first floor, very surprised at what had happened.

Next book up: Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler

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