Posted by: chartroose | March 31, 2008

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


Terry Ryan, 2005, 352 p.

While I was reading this 2005 memoir, I kept thinking, “this should be made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.”  It has all the elements of a Hallmark production: it’s sappy and sweet, it’s simplistic and enjoyable, it’s quick and has very little depth to it.  When I began looking for a picture of the cover to include in this post, I was surprised to find that it was made into a movie, and for the big screen!  The film was produced shortly after the book was published, but I never heard of it.  It even starred some big names: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern.  Was it even shown in theaters?  It must not have been popular.  Perhaps it’s because the movie is also of the “made for television” persuasion.


For what it’s worth, The Prize Winner… accomplished its task in a very effective manner.  The author, Terry Ryan, set out to canonize her mother, and she did so with aplomb.  Evelyn Ryan, the heroine, kept her 1950’s family of 12 afloat by entering hundreds of “contests of skill.”  She wrote rhymes and jingles for everything from Paper Mate pens to Dr. Pepper and sent them in to be judged and (hopefully) rewarded.  Evelyn won quite a bit–everything from bicycles and televisions to cars and cash.  She won more than anyone else in her region of the U.S., and sometimes just in the nick of time.  If it weren’t for her, the Ryans would’ve ended up in the gutter several times over.

Certainly what Evelyn did was admirable and should be highly praised, and therein lies the problem.  In “The Prize Winner… she is too highly praised.  Evelyn Ryan was perfect.  The woman could do no wrong, ever!  I mean, come on, she must’ve lost her temper with the kids and yelled at them every once in awhile, or belched or farted or SOMETHING!  I want realism here!  If I want to read fairy tales, I’ll flip through a copy of The Brothers Grimm, which will be a lot more realistic than this book was!

Even the abusive alcoholic father, Kelly Ryan (the evil troll in any fairy tale), wasn’t portrayed realistically enough.  I’m not quite sure how this happened, but the author somehow watered down his evildoing so much that it just didn’t affect me like it should have.  So he knocked Evelyn down, big deal.  He spent all their money on booze, so what?  It had to be the writing.  There was something missing in the characterizations.

The most enjoyable part of the book was reading the entries that Evelyn sent in.  Some were terrible, like the last line she wrote for this one:

For school room, bank or office
Doodles and documents, too
Use a dependable Paper Mate
To smoo-o-o-th little stINKer’s debut!

Others were witty, like this one:

People who like people for Dial are emphatic
Tempers flare, tempis fugits, but freshness is static.

Just for fun I’m going to try to write an entry about this book:

The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio
Is a memoir that depicts the Mama
As such a good and saintly person
She could’ve been the first gal Dalai Lama!

I read this about a month ago, and now I really am going to lay-off the memoirs for awhile.  I’m tired of all the embellishments and saccharine perfections and unrealistic villianizations of so many of the characters in these types of books.  They’re beginning to remind me of the Clinton/Obama battles a bit too much.  Maybe I’ll start reading them again after the election is over.



  1. I actually just started reading this last night, and I can’t decide if I like it or not. I’m thinking it’s going to be one of those ok books, not great, but still entertaining… oh well.

  2. Your last line made me laugh! I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs too, lately, and I know just what you mean. I think it’s because it’s hard for the authors to view their own lives without grasping for justification. What happened was either down to someone’s fine qualities or their faults. Hmm, I don’t know, maybe that’s too simplistic, but something needs to account for the saint/villain tendencies! This book sounds intriguing, but what I want to know is why the woman didn’t rustle up some childcare and go out to a job? Or is that a foolish question?

  3. Heather, I kind of enjoyed it, even with all of its imperfections. The entries that Evelyn wrote were fascinating, and I’m really glad everything worked out for the family. I think grandmothers who read the Mitford series (about the aging pastor) would enjoy this book.

    litlove–I think you’re absolutely right. Life is confusing and often unpleasant, and when you try to write it down, how do you explain it all so that it doesn’t come across as overly melodramatic or overly exaggerated? I also agree about the childcare thing. There must have been something she could have done to make more money, especially when the kids were older. Also, they had some form of birth control in the ’50’s, didn’t they?

  4. I, too, have been o.d.-ing on the memoirs lately and had to laugh at your frustration with the perfect mother, etc. I haven’t read this one yet, but I know I would struggle if the interesting, complex, rough edges of the “characters” have been smoothed out. Personally, if I were in a memoir I would want my imperfections represented as well — much more interesting than my strengths!! I just finished “Julie/Julia” by Julie Powell — a memoir of sorts about a blogger who is anything but perfect…

  5. […] reaction (not so positive) yet felt compassionate toward Powell’s angst, too.  Chartroose recently posted about how memoirs can canonize their family members and sanitize their experiences, […]

  6. You crack me up. I read this a couple of years ago and immediately Netflix’d the movie. I enjoyed it. Your jingle is GOOD.

    I could suggest My War: Killing Time in Iraq when you want to get back into memoirs – no saccharine in this one. Or maybe Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

  7. Thank you Care! Maybe I’ll try the movie. Every once in awhile, the movie is better than the book.

    Speaking of boycotts and the Dalai Lama, I think we should boycott the Summer Olympics. Have you heard about the atrocities the Chinese govt. is committing against Tibet? Why would anyone want to terrorize and kill harmless monks?

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