The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: A Review

Galit Breen reviews & interviews

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“Definace, Ohio,” Evelyn Ryan says, smiling—warmly—at her daughter Tuff, “A great place to leave!” The two burst into laughter, mouths wide, chins tipped. Evelyn’s coiffed hair frame a beautiful face absolutely lit by her eyes, and her smile. 16-year-old Tuff drives the two conspirators of the soul out of town for Evelyn’s first outing in about a decade.

This is just one scene of too many to count that pulled at my heartstrings and left me cheering much too loudly for a Saturday movie date night in with my husband.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio tells the story of Evelyn Ryan, a 1950s housewife whose clever wit and knack for jingle writing won her family (of twelve!) a large freezer, ice buckets, a washing machine, a trip to New York, sleds, boots, a pony, a palm tree, a window, a sports car, a shopping spree in her local grocery store, ice crushers, a camera, dance shoes, a boat motor, pogo sticks, a case of dog food, a lifetime supply of bird seed, and a home payment—twice.

Evelyn is portrayed as the most positive and loving of women. With 10 children to care for and a husband who drank his paycheck, she kept her family afloat and instilled in her children the belief that no matter what came their way, they were each strong and there was always a solution to be found, a something to be done.

In 1998, all 10 of the Ryan children flew home to be there during Evelyn’s last weeks. Going through their childhood home, they learned she’d never stopped writing. Tuff found this poem still in her typewriter:

Every time I pass the church
I stop and make a visit
So when I'm carried in feet first
God won't say, 'Who is it?'

She knew then and there she had to write her mother’s story. And she did. The result, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, is a heartwarming tale of the power and strength of one woman who changed the course for her family—via endless positivity, warmth, and hard work. The undercurrent of the story is to define yourself by the golden moments, rather than the tarnish.

Terry “Tuff” Ryan’s—a nickname she earned by being the middle of 10 children with 5 brothers—work of heart was made into a movie in 2004 starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. Tuff called the filming the highlight of her life.

I loved this movie for its warmth. For it’s positivity. For it’s raw reality without a single hint of self-pity. For the way it honored Evelyn as a woman of strength, humor, and the kind of intelligence we all hope we have.

Cheers to Evelyn, Tuff, wordsmithing women, clever jingles, road trips, families that unabashedly stay together, and perfect date night movies that leave you cheering—loudly.

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Galit Breen

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