* Prices may differ from that shown
Women have made incredible strides in the workplace since the end of the second world war. These days girls don't even think twice about planning for a career and not just a job when they are preparing to leave school, but of course for many people just a generation or two behind us, that wasn't the case.
It's easy to forget that many occupations were closed to married women not so long ago. My mother worked for a bank after she left school and was only allowed to remain in her job after her marriage to my father in 1958 because he was in the merchant navy. As soon as he got home and returned to civvy street, her employment was terminated and she was expected to stay at home and raise a family while her husband, quite literally, brought home the bacon.
Now when this worked, it was a fine arrangement. When it didn't, however, it could lead to catastrophic consequences for a woman and the only safety net permitted to them was Child Benefit, which was designed to be paid to mothers as it was felt mothers were less likely to spend the money on something else.
Of course in the US, there wasn't even Child Benefit so if you found yourself with lots of children and married to someone who was less than reliable with money you really did have to use creative thinking to get by - because getting a job really wasn't going to be an option in the 1950s.
"The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio" by Terry Ryan recounts the story of a woman who found herself in the predicament of many mothers at the time. Married to an alcoholic and mother to ten children, Terri's mother Evelyn somehow managed to ensure her children got the best possible start in life in spite of the situation she found herself in.
Evelyn Ryan was a highly intelligent and charming woman who had a particular talent with the written word. Before her marriage she had written for local publications but that all came to an end when she married her husband Kelly and converted to his Catholic faith. From then on in she was a housewife and mother and it didn't take her long to realise her husband had a problem with drink.
Kelly wasn't a habitual drunk. He would remain sober during the day but spend evenings alone in the kitchen listening to baseball on the radio and quietly getting hammered. The main impact his drinking had on the family was financial, because he kept so much of his pay back to cover his habit, leaving Evelyn short for the necessities.
In the boom post war years competitions had taken off in the US - they were used as a marketing tool and also relied on consumers to come up with advertising for a specific product. The subtitle of this book is "How my mother raised 10 kids on 25 words or less" and for anyone who has ever seen entry forms for some of the bigger competitions run by companies wishing to raise their profile they will know exactly what Terry Ryan meant.
The "tie breaker" in these competitions always required something punchy, memorable and most importantly, something that referenced the product sponsoring the competition.
It can be a bit of an art form to master the tie break, and there are people who call themselves "compers", who have perfected this art form and tend to be far more likely to win big on competitions than mere mortals who have to rely on their postcard being picked from a hat. Evelyn Ryan was a natural at the tie-break - which was just as well given how feckless her husband was.
"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" is a wonderful book on two different levels. Firstly it is a family memoir and Terry Ryan manages to introduce the reader to her family in such a manner that they become familiar and memorable relatively quickly. Evelyn Ryan is undoubtedly the star of the show but that's as it should be because it was she who was the glue which held the family together.
Her husband sneered at her hobby, which wasn't just confined to entering competitions offering big prizes - she also wrote poems and anecdotes for publication in local publications, usually netting about $5 a time. Her success no doubt embarrassed him, for he couldn't match her wit - and it no doubt emasculated him too.
Evelyn Ryan got through a life which hadn't turned out quite how she had expected it to be by filling her home with love, encouraging her children to be the very best they could be and by always finding humour in even the darkest of situations.
Terry Ryan also paints a vivid picture of small town America however - Defiance is brought to life in her colourful descriptions of people and places she recalls from her childhood in 1950s Ohio. She only briefly mentions, towards the end of the book, how the heart of Defiance isn't really there any more and even then it's only brought up because her mother never learned to drive and walked everywhere - so obviously the opening of an out of town mall would have something of an effect on her.
She brings the local milkman and postman vividly to life. With so many children, Evelyn Ryan bought a lot of milk, and frequently owed the milkman money. The postman was viewed as potentially the bearer of good news or the money required to pay the milkman. Terry Ryan describes this matter of factly - for her, quite clearly, this was "normality" for her as a child.
What is so good about this book however is the fact Terry Ryan resists the temptation to make herself feature more than any of her siblings. Evelyn Ryan would enter bigger competitions using many different names, including those of her children. So it was inevitable that some of "her" prizes had to be accepted by her children and while Terry Ryan herself didn't find herself a big winner, her brother Bruce did, for instance - netting a car, cash and a trip to New York. The children never assumed they would be able to keep these prizes - consumer goods such as washing machines or fridges would be kept but the vast majority of prizes were sold for cold hard cash to keep the Ryan family solvent.
As Terry Ryan gets older the resentment she and her siblings feels towards their father is palpable, yet this is never a feeling Evelyn Ryan ever exudes within the confines of this book herself. I did wonder why at times but then I would remind myself that she was a woman who came from a completely different generation to me and quite simply, people put up with far more then than perhaps they would do now but also there is a sense that she and her husband shared a strong bond in spite of his behaviour.
By the time we are reaching the conclusion of the book it's obvious that Terry Ryan has learned a lesson from her own parents' marriage and that is you cannot be sure exactly what goes on between a married couple - except if you are one half of that couple.
Terry Ryan also avoids self pity in her writing, which is such a blessed relief in a genre which tends to be filled with books sold on the premise of "poor me". Despite the fact she and her siblings grew up in a hand to mouth existence the abiding sense she conveys in this book is of a family who all loved their mother unquestionably and accepted the way things were unequivocably.
I really enjoyed this book and it's one which I have read several times and enjoyed every time. Ryan's prose is entertainingly descriptive and her ability to weave her own memories with those of her siblings has produced a book which conveys how "comping" was a way of life to her mother and her children - for instance she recalls how every jar or can label, every cereal packet had to be saved as proof of purchase for competitions and if the sponsor was for a product the family didn't buy, the children would be sent to find these "proofs" in trash throughout the town.
There is some fortuitous serendipity which you can't help but smile at too - if ever a woman deserved a little sunshine it was Evelyn Ryan and she certainly comes across as a woman who managed to keep smiling in the face of adversity and somehow find a way to ensure her children were always fed and watered, even when she was down to her last dollar.
"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" is a wonderful tribute to a woman who represents an element of defiance in reference to her hometown but also stands as a wonderful tribute to Terry Ryan herself, who sadly passed away in 2007. With this book she has left behind a legacy which, while perhaps not quite as palpable as Evelyn Ryan's own children achieving success in adulthood through adhering to their mother's mantra of working hard and educating yourself, is an enjoyable and more importantly, memorable read and one I highly recommend.
I first heard about this book through a competition website I visit and, because I enjoy entering tie-breaker and slogan-type competitions, I was interested to know how an 'ordinary' housewife managed to net thousands of dollars worth of prizes by penning winning slogans in between keeping house and rearing ten children.
Written by Terry Ryan, this is a Biography of her mother, Evelyn Ryan, who won cash, a trolley-dash, cars, trips to Europe (which were exchanged for cash), colour televisions, a fridge, a freezer, washer-dryer and a steady drip of smaller prizes. Was she just 'lucky' - or does her reason for success go much deeper?
Firstly, using the word 'ordinary' in relation to Evelyn is, in my view, a severe misrepresentation when describing this far from ordinary lady. Mother to ten children (6 boys, 4 girls) with an alcoholic, sometimes violent, and certainly irresponsible husband, this family of 12 lived in Defiance (a happy coincidence if ever there was one), a small Midwestern town in Ohio, in the 1950s/60s. With her husband drinking most of his wages away, it fell to Evelyn to keep the grinding poverty, threat of eviction and near starvation at bay.
How did she do it?
Well, Evelyn, who had been writing most of her life, one way or another, had a unique way with words. Suffice to say, her word skills, wit and originality saved the family's bacon on many occasions. With little more than a pen, notebook and ironing board as her office, she slogged (or should that be 'slog-anned'?) away, penning jingles, poems and 25-words-or-less slogans to enter hundreds upon hundreds of consumer contests, in the hope that she would win a high value prize to either sell or replace some household appliance that was about to expire. She worked hard at it and luck, she said, had nothing to do with it.
Obviously, as a 'comper' myself, I was initially drawn to this book looking for some 'inside information'; the little nugget of magic knowledge that would maybe help me in my own quest after the elusive 'biggie' as we compers call a substantial prize.
I wasn't disappointed in the 'nuggets'. Though a little dated now, the basis of what one should be aiming for is there - but the book is much more than how Evelyn won competitions.
Obviously, it will end up on the bookshelves of many aspiring 'compers' but I defy anyone with a beating heart not to be moved by Terry Ryan's tribute to her mother, so full of love and humour that one can't help but look at the grey world around us in a more positive light.
It is not a ' We lived in a paper bag in the gutter and life was hard' tale of woe. The author doesn't dwell on the daily tragedy of her family life, but rather on the strong character and strength of her mother. Nothing seemed to faze her, not even the oddly assorted animals and birds who shared the Ryan household. And before you purse your lips and mutter "If they were so poor, how come they could afford to keep pets?" - well, only by reading the story could you possibly understand it wasn't entirely by choice. And believe me, those pets were as much a part of the Ryan household as anybody and certainly provided some superb comedy.
It became clear to me very early on that Evelyn Ryan was an enterprising woman, who possessed tenacity, determination and above all unquenchable optimism - and a fabulous sense of humour.
Her humour and positive outlook in the face of almost daily imminent disaster shines throughout. As the family lurch from one crisis to another, laughter, a strong sense of survival and inspired resourcefulness is never far behind.
Imagine, there was no child benefit such as we enjoy today; no rent or utility rebates. You paid for your doctor, optician and dentist. Trying to spread her feckless husband's wages across household expenses as well as feeding this large family, would have been hard enough even if he had been a tee-totaller. Strangely, Evelyn seems to have accepted his weakness with great fortitude and rather than rage at him, wring her hands and weep and wail, she decided to use her talent for writing to get the money she needed for her family.
What emerges as the driving element in this story is the courage of an indefatigable mother whose tenacity knows no bounds. Bowing to poverty doesn't enter her head. Anyway, there were no crisis centres or shelters, so what would have been the point?
Through the adept chronicling of Terry Ryan, her mother emerges as an admirable role-model; someone who teaches her children the lesson of pride and possibility; that no matter how bad things get, you can find a focus on the positive side of whatever hell life throws at you. Why dwell on the hardship suffered due in most part to the fecklessness of her husband, when her energy could be used more positively and therefore constructively? I think, in her eyes, the father of her children wasn't a 'bad' person - just a hurdle to overcome!
Finally, the writing style of the author:
If I have one minor criticism, it is that the author could have left out some of the many samples of the jingles and slogans her mother penned. Even as a true comper, I found it a little tedious to read so many. Some of them were truly awful, but then again, if the inclusion of these does anything at all it will show those of us struggling to write winning slogans that even the best of slogan writers can sometimes have bad days! Nevertheless, some judicious editing wouldn't have gone amiss. No matter, they weren't a great detraction from the main story.
Even though this is a true story, to me it read like a great work of fiction - and I mean that in a complimentary way. Terry Ryan has an easy way with words; chatty and confiding, full of delightful anecdotes, with photographs and commentary, so that the book read almost like a letter from a friend. When I finished the book, I felt I had left some old and dear friends behind and a little sad to have finished it. Still, I know I can pick up the book any time and visit them all over again.
I would recommend this book without reservation. It's heartwarming without the schmaltz and humbling without leaving the reader depressed. In short, it was a joy.
What a thrill! Terry Ryan popped into the competition forum I belong to (compersnews.co.uk - about which I have done a review) and told us that she hopes to write a sequel to this book.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less) has been made into a film which was released in the States in the Autumn of 2005, and actress Julianne Moore will play Evelyn Ryan.
It won't be long, therefore, before we see it in the UK and I understand the DVD is out right now
A snip of the film can be seen here: http://lime.gofishpictures.com/prizewinner/trailer.html
351 pages including black and white photographs
Available from Amazon new and used at approximately £2.00
Thank you for reading!
Louise Saunders 2006
A moving and nostalgic account of her mother's battle with poverty and prejudice.