Sunday, February 21, 2010
BOOK REVIEW -THE PRIZEWINNER OF DEFIANCE OHIO
If it is true that it's not what happens to you in this life but how you react to your circumstances, then Evelyn Ryan is a poster child for that philosophy. She was rearing 10 kids in a dilapidated 2 room house in the 1950's with an alcoholic husband who drank away any security they might have had.
Evelyn Ryan took her jaunty writing skills and created jingles for the myraid of consumer contests that were part of the advertising culture at this time. Evelyn had been writing all her life and decided to try turning her love of words into a way to augment their meager existence with some short, pithy, humorous prose. She ended up entering thousands of contests and won hundreds with her wit, wisdom and family experiences turned into poetry.
Folks endowed with
Luck or virtue
Get the tissue
To the Kerchooo
Her contesting career began with Berma Shave roadside rhymes. I am old enough to remember them with delight.
The book is written by the second daughter and sixth child, Terry Ryan, after her mother died and she retrieved the piles of information left as memoribilia by her mother. All 10 children submitted memories of their family events to Terry for her wonderful story. If this story was fiction it would be charming but maybe just a little "too much", but as a memoir of this remarkable mother it becomes an enigmatic treasure.
Evelyn Ryan felt a keen responsibility to stay home to rear her 10 children but she also had a desperate desire to advance their financial needs in some way. Two miraculous wins came on separate occasions when the family was about to lose their very humble abode. The children went to Catholic schools and although religion wasn't a prominant theme in the story I saw this woman with faith that astounded me. She was tireless, agressive in defense of her "chicks", funny and upbeat when she had every reason to go to bed with the covers over her head. Leaving her useless husband was never an option in her thinking. She tried to focus on his good traits. And I believe because of her acceptance of him he learned to appreciate her over the years and maybe even try harder.
There was an angel in the story in the form of an Aunt who bailed them on several occasions and took the children in times of stress and need. I believe God sends these angels to people who are trying.
Baseball may have been another saving element of this family. Two of the boys were gifted players and the family practiced with them and united with excitement as they played during their youth. Both boys ended up playing with the pros for awhile.
In my family writing classes I try to convince my students that if they share their stories with family members that they will be motivated to write their own stories. Evelyn proved my theory. Everything she wrote was critiqued by the family first. Many of her children ended up writing. The youngest daughter Betsy wrote a moving afterward that I can't help copying here.
There is a movie by the same name made in 2005. I hope to find it and leave a review of it. Stay tuned.
Betsy Ryan: My mother wrote from her own life, recording embellishing, or ignoring as she chose, in the middle of everything. From the newsroom of her girlhood to the ironing board of her family life, the writing went on, shaping itself while she worked toward wildly differing goals. Whether for her cheeky column in her grandmother's newspaper, the fourth line of a breezy Birds Eye jingle, or the turn of phrase in a short story that might express, once and for all, the combined affection and horror we all felt for Charley the Chicken, it was a writing of humor and ease, rooted in her daily life and uniquely expressive of it. When many writers might retreat from the world for some needed solitude, she grabbed that writing pad and got it down, the prize won, the moment captured, the other hand on the iron.
But biography was not exactly her aim. She was more of a poet--someone who tinkered with words and shades of meaning and phraseology for the fun of it, someone whose search for the telling detail was a source of joy. In this way, she shaped her surroundings as much as they shaped her. And let's not forget laughter. She had an unerring sense of what was funny, coming as she did from a strict Methodist upbringing and learning through living to leave it well behind, and could double over from the effects of her own writing. It was a focal point for her talent, yes, but also a necessary release.
The thought used to cross our minds that Mom could have had a wonderful life writing advertising cipy on Madison Avenue instead of raising 10 children on no money in the middle of nowhere. But this was before we really knew her. We have learned from the things she left behind that hers was a remarkable life, defined most of all by the wish to include everything. From a child's poem or a paid-off loan note to her rural Ohio domestic life that allowed, or inspired, the perfect turn of phrase in a prizewinning entry, one thing was as important as the next, and equally absorbing. Looking through these things she left for us in the months after she died allowed us to see, piece by piece, what she was all about, and to appreciate the true extent of her accomplishment.
I have a recurring dream about my mother. She is sitting on her living room couch, holding this book in her hands. "This is wonderful," she is saying, with tears in her eyes. "But where did you find all of this material? Where did it come from?"
From you, Mom. It came from you.
A LOVELY BOOK!
Thanks to Margene Snow for recommending this for our Book Club reading this year.