Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan

Part of Mother’s Day Week on Vulpes: a week of items on the themes of mothers and motherhood

How does one write a love letter to one’s mother without sounding sloppily sentimental? Cartoonist Terry Ryan does it in her memoir subtitled How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s in a small town in western Ohio, her large family was very poor, even by standards of the working class neighborhood they lived in. Though her father had a good job at a tool and die factory, he was an alcoholic who drank up most of his paycheck. Since women were discouraged from working outside the home in those unenlightened times, her mother turned to writing advertisements for almost any product imaginable.
Back then, commercials weren’t done by million dollar ad agencies with jingles by Barry Manilow, they were written by regular people, obtained through contests tied to various products. Corporations would offer prizes not only of the expected appliances or caseloads of food, but offbeat items such as a working oil rig or the winner’s weight in gold. Mrs. Ryan won bicycles, trips, a sports car, microscope, jukebox and fishing equipment, as well as a washer, Tvs and refrigerators. What her family couldn’t use, she sold, often below market value. My favorite chapter was about winning a supermarket shopping spree, where her children called out directions as she raced to beat the clock.”Candy in aisle five!” yells one of the children. The timing of some of the larger prizes were nothing short of miraculous, saving the family from foreclosure or a health crisis. But the majority of her winnings was small change: $3 here, $25 there, it’s astonishing that she was able to eke out a living from such tiny amounts.
What was surprising to me was the subculture of contesters, almost like gamers today, with newsletters, social groups, tricks to be more successful, inside info on judges, word combinations and a device called a “Red Mitten” that guaranteed at least a runner-up prize. These groups not only provided networking opportunities, but also a support system for women often isolated in remote towns or by health problems. Most of them, like Mrs. Ryan, worked on their entries as they did housework, keeping a notebook on the ironing board or kitchen counter.
Like any large family, Terry Ryan’s was full of amusing incidents, mischief and touching moments, but she never gets sappy. She would have been justified in praising this woman to the skies, but instead emphasizes how her mother’s stability held the family together. “Mom delighted in life’s innate hilarity, and her joy in living found its best statement through her gloriously understated “knack for words”.” I was filled with admiration for this quietly heroic lady. There seems to be no lingering bitterness about what her father’s belligerent alcoholism put the family through, which I saw as a testament to the love and positive attitude that the mother surrounded the kids with. As is the lives of all 10 children, each with sensible careers and families of their own. That, along with this book, is a most fitting tribute to a wonderful mother.

Simon and Schuster 2001 351 pp. ISBN 0-7432-1122-7

4 comments on “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan

  1. sequinonsea
    March 3, 2008

    This sounds fascinating. Want it.

    “I was filled with admiration for this quietly heroic lady.” Me too.

  2. Mhairi
    March 3, 2008

    An amazing tale, from the sounds of it. I had no idea advertising slogans were written that way in 50s and 60s. Although – having said that – I DO remember that if you went in for any sort of product-related competition the “tie-breaker” was very often a slogan of some sort.

  3. Ariadne
    March 3, 2008


  4. rosyb
    March 5, 2008

    Lovely piece, Jackie. Really got the flavour across. Loved the descriptions of all the prizes. 😉

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This entry was posted on March 3, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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