Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, April 12, 2001





It's Evelyn L. Ryan Day in Defiance, Ohio, the gorgeous Midwestern town that forms the setting for my partner Terry's book about her mother, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less."

Two vanloads of Ryan relatives and friends - not a caravan exactly but a "pairavan," as Terry calls it - have come into town and are gasping and cheering at every sign of the Big Day.

A big white banner stretches across the main street downtown proclaiming "EVELYN L. RYAN DAY," and posters of Terry's appearances call to us from the Chief supermarket (where she once worked), the library, mall stores and Defiance College, where she's to speak tonight.

A lot of screeching of tires can be heard. As Terry gets out of the van, people driving past who haven't seen her for 40 years slam on their brakes and dash out to hug her in the street. Cars slow down nearby, drivers calling out, "Awright, Tuff!" (her childhood nickname).

Driving past the Shell station, Terry's brother Bruce notices a WELCOME HOME TERRY RYAN sign and does a little brake-slamming of his own. Everybody piles out - two sisters, a brother, me, Tuff's agent and partner, three nephews, and the author herself - to thank the manager of convenience store and gather all Shell employees together for a photo.

We're staying at the Frank Baker Inn, Defiance's best (well, only) bed-and-breakfast hotel, and here the countdown to Tuffy's Big Speech proceeds with great tension a'building.

The Ryan troops have taken over the entire 3-bedroom house, so as the reporter from the nearby Napoleon Northwest Signal finishes interviewing Tuff in the living room, the Bryan Times stands ready in the kitchen and the Toledo Blade tramps up the cold steps for its second front-page piece.

In the formal parlor, WLIO-TV of Lima, Ohio - an hour away - sets up for the Ric Bratton Show, and at the front door stands the great Dortha Schaefer, contest-winner extraordinaire, friend of Evelyn Ryan, leader of the Affadaisies (see chapter 12) and longtime columnist for the Paulding Progress.

Of course the "bigger" media await in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Lexington and Chicago - future stops on this crucial part of Terry's tour - and Terry has already appeared on the Today Show and been interviewed by the New York Times and NPR's Weekend All Things Considered.

But I'm more fascinated with the book's roots - with the way Terry has insisted that her brothers and sisters participate at every level; with the way people in Defiance see this book as an expression of the spirit of Northwestern Ohio.

Which brings me to the kind of book consciousness I believe is beginning to occur anew across the land.

I've often wondered (I know! this is the last time!) whether publishing in the United States might have taken a different course if Americans hadn't followed the British model by establishing mainstream houses in one city or seaboard, where they tend to dictate to the tastes of a nation.

Instead, why didn't we bring our book presses with us as we went pioneering and hacking and slashing our way across the Plains to the Western frontier? Had we done so, instead of waiting for, say, Harper & Row to decide on the national relevance of a local book, we might have published books locally first, then watched them grow organically from their home base to larger and larger communities.

We might have seen, then, the appeal of each book spreading in concentric circles by region, by profession, by field of interest, by the quality of the writing, by the universality of story.

I watched Terry go through these very stages without being aware of it when her mother Evelyn died in 1998. Every one of her nine brothers and sisters had to find a way to get through mourning for this woman who saved their lives every day by winning contests and standing up to their alcoholic and abusive father.

For Terry (the sixth child), finding and compiling Evelyn's contest memorabilia - seven dressers full of notebooks, entry blanks, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters of congratulations from companies like Dial Soap, Pepsodent, Dr. Pepper and Beechnut Gum - was a first step in discovery and calculation that led her to lay out a family history of interest only to Evelyn Ryan's family.

Her first "book" was a fat binder of family memorabilia, copied about 20 times and sent to Evelyn's 10 kids and other close relatives. For many, that might have been the end of the "impulse to publish," as it's called. But for Terry, her mother's story was too important; she wanted the whole world to know it.

This idea - that anyone driven enough to write that book we're all supposed to have in us should go ahead and do it, even if only our cousins will read it - is fundamental to the notion of democracy-in-publishing that calls to every American just as assuredly as those posters about Terry call to the people of Defiance.

Maybe we lost that idea when mainstream publishing got centralized in New York, forcing independent publishers to bring diversity and personality to literary standards across the country.

But now that the digital revolution is at hand, maybe, too, we have a chance to re-establish some of the older ideals.

After all, with today's literary technology, Terry had the option to start with a print-on-demand (POD) or e-book publication, something she knew would be of interest to her family and might have grown by word of mouth, even beyond the cornfields surrounding her home town.

But just because she believed - and her agent and her editor believed - that an established publisher would start the book off with a national audience, Terry knows that at the same time, this is a book with Defiance, Ohio, in the title. Acceptance and love for the book must occur within this first concentric circle, or the appeal that seems so universal will mean nothing, at least to the author.

So as the packed auditorium at Defiance College awaits Terry's speech tonight, it's quite moving to see the stage fill with Ryan family members and their kids. Ordinarily you'd expect maybe three or four siblings and some grandchildren but of course the Ryan family is so populous and hefty it crams the stage to its curtain rods.

And as Terry "Tuff" Ryan, the sixth of Evelyn's children, a popular girl at Defiance High School but never comfortable in the limelight as an adult, walks down the auditorium stairs toward the stage, the people of Defiance turn in their chairs and spot her among them. They don't wait for her to be introduced or even to reach the stage. They begin smatteringly to applaud, then gaily and wildly, with whistles and cheers, and such pure affection that you know they know - and they want HER to know - they've already claimed this book as part of their history and, of course, as Evelyn Ryan's legacy.

Defiance, by the way, was so named when General "Mad" Anthony Wayne built Fort Defiance in 1794 at the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize Rivers. His famous words were: "I defy the Indians, the English and all the devils in hell to take it," and in perhaps the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, a thousand Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Sauk, Fox and Iroquois people died trying.

Terry begins the book by calling Defiance "a town named in triumph by a madman" - a not-so-hidden reference to her father as well as to Wayne. But the theme of a truer and more courageous defiance emerges as her mother challenges the church, her husband and the limitations of the '50s to give her children a shot at their own destiny.

"You'll never know how much it means for me and my family to see you all here to celebrate my mother," Terry tells the enrapt audience, "and, let's face it, [to celebrate] a wonderful town in the Northwestern corner of Ohio called Defiance.

"To me, my mother and Defiance are inextricably entwined. I've loved this town from the first moment I left it three decades ago. You almost have to leave to realize how much you want to stay."


NOTE TO READERS: Gad, writing on the road is tough! Thanks to Hut Landon for dispatches from The Trial of the New Century (you can read his "Litigation Update" emails by contacting ABA@pop.bookweb.org) and to those online losers Amazon.com and Borders.com for giving us the most entertaining and hapless wheel-spinning partnership in history. I'm going to try sending shorter and more frequent dispatches for the next few weeks, hold off on LETTERS and continue with "TERRY MEETS 'KNUCKLEHEADS IN THE NEWS'" next time.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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