I have been a part-time member of the Jesse Stuart Foundation’s book club for more than a decade. I say a part-time member because there have been a number occasions over the years where I have failed to read the current selection.
For the most part, we have read books by Appalachian authors like Jesse Stuart, That’s why I was a bit surprised by the book Jim Gifford, executive director of the Stuart Foundation, had selected for our readers’ group to read for the September meeting: “The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio” by Terry Ryan.
The non-fiction book is written by the daughter of the late Evelyn Ryan of Defiance, who helped support her family of 10 children by winning numerous contests she entered in the 1950s and 1960s. A number of years ago, I watched a movie about Helen Ryan, which I enjoyed, but did not think it was all that memorable.
That’s one of the reasons why when GIfford announced the book he had selected for us to read, he quickly added that the book “is a lot better than the movie.”
Wow, was he ever right. While the movie was OK, I personally found the book to be a real prizewinner, despite being a bit too wordy at 348 pages. Nevertheless, I read it in less than three days, and I am a rather slow reader.
What the book was able to capture that the movie failed to do is what a truly remarkable woman Evelyn Ryan was. While reading her story as depicted by one of her 10 kids, I literally fell in love with Evelyn Ryan’s delightful sense of humor, her uplifting spirit, her faith and her ability to overcome poverty that kept her large family living on the brink of financial collapse, a husband who was an alcoholic, a life in which she rarely traveled outside of Defiance, a city this Ohio native has never visited.
Defiance is about 55 miles west of Toledo, but then I have never been to Toledo, either.
I liked that book in part because it takes place during the 1950s and 1960s. That was when I was growing up, and I could identify with some of their experiences.
The many contests Evelyn Ryan won were not because of luck. She did not win any lotteries or games of chance. She didn’t even play bingo. Instead, whe won because of her knack for writing catchy phrases and jingles.
The book contains many examples of her witty phrases.
Two of my favorites are:
A Christmas tradition too tough to resist,
Your run out of money before the end of your list.
Whenever I pass the church,
I always stop for a visit,
So when I’m carried in feet first,
God won’t have to ask, ‘Who is it?’"
This book made me laugh and cry and many emotions in between.
To me that’s a sign of great writing.
It is available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation. This column just skims the surface of what’s inside.
Reach JOHN CANNON at firstname.lastname@example.org.