I can’t remember how many times I said “Wow!” out loud while I was reading this book about the most amazing woman I have ever encountered. Not only did The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduce me to the unsinkable Evelyn Ryan, it also brought alive post-WWII, small-town America. Warning: this is no romance novel, readers. Evelyn lived through hell, with only her inner strength, pride and brains to save her. In fact, if anyone deserved a romance novel, it was Evelyn Ryan.
In the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, consumerism was running rampant and product manufacturers sponsored hundreds of contests to encourage housewives to buy more of their brands. But these contests weren’t simple sweepstakes that relied on sheer luck. They were small works of art, short poems and limericks that required the contestant to be clever, entertaining and of course succinct - in 25 words or less. Evelyn Ryan was a champion “contester.” Over the years she won money, appliances, food, shopping sprees and even new cars. Thank goodness she did, because she was the mother of 10 children and the wife of an alcoholic, Leo “Kelly” Ryan, whose drinking was a major drain on the family finances.
Written by Terry, sixth of ten Ryan children, Prize Winner covers the period from 1953 to 1965, describing the various big and small wins that Evelyn achieved. Usually her victories were perfectly timed - the family fridge didn’t have a handle, the car engine had to be hit with a hammer to change gears and various medical emergencies kept cropping up. Leo’s behavior ranged from apathetic to physically abusive. But other than occasional help with the groceries from Evelyn’s sister-in-law, the champion contester single-handedly kept the family financially and emotionally above water.
Part of the book’s charm is the inclusion of many of Evelyn’s contest entries, which range from impressive to bizarre:
I’m glad I use Dial
It does what it’s supposed to.
Gets me clean, keeps me fresh,
Makes me nice to be close to.
For school room, bank or office
Doodles and documents, too
Use a dependable Paper Mate
To smoo-o-o-th little stINKer’s debut!
Evelyn entered each contest numerous times under different variations of her own and her children’s names to increase her chances of winning. So “Dick Ryan” won a new bicycle and $5,000 (enabling the Ryans to move from their 2 bedroom house into a 4 bedroom one) and “Bruce Ryan” won a sports car, a jukebox, a trip to New York and an appearance on TV. Problem was, the more she won, the more Leo resented her and the more abusive he became. But did Evelyn complain? Domestic violence wasn’t a recognized issue 50 years ago; the family priest told Evelyn to endure her husband’s behavior and “keep the family whole.” So Evelyn kept on writing jingles, somehow barely averting financial ruin while standing up to Leo when he went too far, and raising 10 children, all of whom attended college and established careers. The book never dwells on the life such a strong, intelligent woman should have had, but instead deals with her remarkable ability to find joy in her children and her contesting successes.
I was expecting this book to read a little like Cheaper By the Dozen, and in that way it disappoints slightly. The ten children aren’t given separate personalities like the Gilbreth brood, and it’s easy to confuse Dave with Dick, Bruce or Bub. But the focus isn’t really on the kids anyway - it’s on their amazing mother, who finally succumbed to cancer in 1998 at the age of 85. The author’s sister, Betsy, says in an afterward that she dreams of their mother admiring the book written in her honor. I urge readers out there to pay tribute to this unsung American heroine by reading The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. Then see if your own troubles don’t look a little smaller by comparison!