The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio;
How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less
by Terry Ryan
Simon & Schuster $24.00
This book captures the nature of being American: the persistent belief in the possibility of a sudden, big win; the combined effect of the grace of God and good fortune; and the hidden injuries of class. It's as much about desperation as it is about hope.
In the 1950's and 60's the Ryan family lived in a small Midwestern town. Although the word is never used, they were, if not destitute, an inch from it at any given time. Poverty was compounded by the blindness of the era. "A drinking problem" was not a big problem. Women and children should stay at home and take whatever was given them, bounty or brutality. When there is a profound disconnection between reality and social construct, individuals find a way to build their lives between the lines of acceptability. Evelyn Ryan did it by entering contests.
Evelyn Ryan's fall back position, literally banking on winning big, is as unstable as the reality of her life. Desperation and anger are subdued by the vagaries of hope and just enough winning to make belief in brighter days plausible. The hopelessness surfaces in moments, dragging anger and frustration with it. The kids quarrel with each other, but unite against the outside world when it tries to disgrace one of them and against their father when he becomes violent to their mother. There is nothing and everything to fight, nothing and everything to lose.
Terry Ryan inherited from her mother, Evelyn, a sense of how to make painful things funny. However, the art of looking the other way, the mechanism of denial is neither desirable nor available for the writer. By recording the elements of common tragedy - her father's alcoholism, the incessant poverty and the school's presumption of the children's stupidity because of it - Ms. Ryan has created a poignant, believable memoir.
During a particularly difficult time, the family was forced to eat the last remaining food in the house, noodle soup made from dry ingredients. When the kids notice that the so-called spices are swimming, they politely ask for soup without spices.
"'This is the soup we have,' Mom said, with an air of finality. 'And it is bug free!' We looked from Mom's face to the bowls. It came down to this: Were we going to believe our mother or our own eyes? We ate the soup."
The story of the Ryan family is told delicately, with anecdotes and mere mentions of passing cruelties. The emotions of the book move in waves, the current defined by wins and losses. Prize Winner is neither melodramatic nor comic, it is realistic and therefore, touching.
It's a winner.
-from BookSense Newsmagazine, November 2001