The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
by Terry Ryan
I'm not sure this book would be considered a memoir or not. What it is is the story of the author's mother and her unflinching spirit, her tenacious talent in the face of poverty and hardships. Evelyn Ryan was a contester, a woman who used her language skills to create clever slogans for contest products to win prizes and money to keep her large family afloat. With 10 children and an alcoholic husband, this was no small job. What Mrs. Ryan never did was despair. She never lost hope that a solution could be found to whatever problem came up, whether it was paying for groceries, doctors' bills, or a house. You can't read this book and think that Mrs. Ryan was just a lucky lady. She put hours of effort into her jingles and poems, making them concise and humorous or dramatic, whatever the case called for.
It certainly was a good read and very funny. I laughed out loud more times than I can remember, something that I don't usually do. There is also drama as the family must deal with the alcoholic Mr. Ryan who drank away almost half of his meager salary each week and was abusive when drunk. I don't think the audience hears everything there is to know about this man but then that's not the focus of the book. Mr. Ryan is included only to show from what dire straights Mrs. Ryan had to work against. But, there is enough of his presence that if you have a painful history with dealing with an alcoholic then you may consider skipping this one.
To compare the book with the movie is to have a lot to talk about. They contain a lot of the same wording and experiences but not in the same way. Many of the stories from the book were merged together to make one big scene in the movie. The movie Mrs. Ryan is much exaggerated in her perkiness and positive outlook, so much so as to be plastic and unrealistic. The real Mrs. Ryan did get angry and impatient once in a while but she never quit. She knew that if she didn't do the hard work her family would come apart.
I like both the movie and the book but they are different in too many ways. The book is inspirational because of Mrs. Ryan's ingenuity and fighter's spirit. The movie is fun and dramatic and emphasizes the importance of looking on the bright side and having compassion and forgiveness. And, let me just add that I first thought Woody Haroldson was a poor choice to play the father but after seeing the movie twice now I see that he was just right. He brings out a pathetic and browbeaten quality with a touch of humor allowing the audience to forgive him just as Mrs. Ryan and Tuffy forgive him.