[9 April 2013]
“We loved each other, but I’m not sure how much we liked each other.”
The sorrows, mysteries, and beauties of the human experience are on full display in Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Subtitled A Southern Girl, a Small Town and the Secret of a Good Life, this moving and emotionally complex account of the life and death of Dreher’s younger sister, who passed away two years ago at the age of 42, touches on one resonant theme after another: deep-seated sibling conflict, growing up as an outsider, strained father-son relationships, the bonds of community, and renewal amidst tragedy.
Contained in these layers are painful lessons that will speak to many. Ultimately, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book about just that: the human condition Namely the drama of mortality and our inability to love one another like we should. Dreher writes of the bitter consequences while also honoring the better angels of our nature.
Growing up in small town Louisiana, Ruthie and Rod never seemed to be on the same page. Outgoing and immensely popular, Ruthie loved nature, sports, and the predictability of rooted life in St. Francisville (population: 1,700). She couldn’t fathom the thought of ever leaving.
Dreher, on the other hand, a restless dreamer, was shaped by Hemingway, world events, and the travels of two great aunts. Bullied at school, he was desperate to escape “the intolerance, the social conformity” of West Feliciana Parish. He yearned to see the world, Paris in particular. Ruthie found such notions peculiar and misguided, as did their father, who took his son’s cosmopolitan inclination for rejection.
As adults, Ruthie stayed, Rod left, and their differences held fast, hardening into a wall that defined their relationship. Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, had three kids, and fulfilled her professional ambition of becoming a teacher. She taught sixth grade at a local elementary school, where she was known for her loving and patient devotion to students. In the eyes of friends and colleagues, Ruthie was saint-like.
Dreher, meanwhile, embarked on a very successful career as a film critic, journalist, and author, which took him to Washington, D.C., New York, and other major American cities. He, too, married and had a family. Both were happy, both were where they wanted to be. For the most part, the two let sleeping dogs lie, delaying what would certainly be a difficult healing process. Time, it seemed, was a luxury they had.
In February of 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with a virulent form of lung cancer. She succumbed to the disease in September of the following year. What happened in between and shortly after forms the sad, tangled, and inspiring heart of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. There was no proper reconciliation between brother and sister, but discoveries were made and life-changing revelations were had.
As Rod watched his sister gradually give up the ghost, he began to glimpse the wisdom and grace of her “little way”, embodied in her fervent goodness to others, her calm endurance of a vicious ailment, and her steadfast commitment to St. Francisville, which rallied to the aid of its suffering daughter. As Dreher said at Ruthie’s funeral, “She showed us how to live, and she showed us how to die.”
Among other things, what makes Ruthie’s life – and this book – so compelling is that, despite her tender and generous heart, she could never accept Rod as he was. Dreher writes, “God knows I held no grudge against her, but I could not understand why I was perhaps the only person on earth whom she couldn’t treat with patience and understanding.” Ruthie changed the lives of students and always had time for friends, but the most she could manage for her sole sibling was a duty-bound kind of love. She couldn’t make peace with the reality of their forked identities.
I’m tempted to say this state of affairs doesn’t ring true, but that’s not the case. It’s perfection – or something masquerading as it – that would strike a resoundingly false note. Experience exposes such lies. Ruthie’s broken love for her brother (and vice versa) is, in fact, only too human, only too recognizable – it’s the world as we know it.
Still, it stings, and deeply. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book of real pain and real tragedy. Unlike a conventional Hollywood screenplay, the story doesn’t proceed inevitably to a tidy, feel-good conclusion. Here, the stakes are high, and you can’t escape the overwhelming sense of regret and sadness. Imagine having a tortured relationship with someone you love, and then that person dies thinking you were a “fraud” of some kind.
To the benefit of this book, Dreher doesn’t obsess over the question “why”, pursuing a resolution where one can’t be found. Rather, he submits, after some consideration, to the unknown. He describes his and Ruthie’s fallen relationship as “a mystery to be lived”. As with the question of theodicy, which briefly comes up, he doubts that having an explanation would actually ease his mind.
In an age that demands answers and seeks mastery over life’s details, Dreher instead humbled himself before the wonder and uncertainty of the human experience. He didn’t find full peace by acknowledging his powerless position, but it did help him to achieve a measure of clarity. There’s a lesson here to ponder. To embrace what we can’t know isn’t a display of weakness. It’s a recognition of our limited purview.
Along with great mysteries came great discoveries. Outside of the two principals, the main character is St. Francisville itself; the quaint, eccentric town that Dreher had rejected in his youth. Returning there to be with Ruthie awakened in him new convictions. When he watched as members of the community cleaned Ruthie’s house, cooked meals for her family, put on fundraisers—one of which brought in over $43,000 – and did so with willing, even joyous hearts, it cast his birthplace in a whole new light.
There’s this poignant passage:
“The same communal bonds that appeared to me as chains all those years ago had become my Louisiana family’s lifelines. What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand.”
Small-town American life, especially in the Deep South, is easy to pigeonhole and mock. But reality TV and outrageous news stories – not to mention ingrained stereotypes—aren’t a means to accessing the whole truth. In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Dreher adjusts the lens and reveals another side, showing what’s possible when residents of a town like St. Francisville invest in the life of their community. As Ruthie’s story demonstrates, the durable bonds that develop can bear fruit in ways for which there is no replacement.
It’s a simple idea—people caring for one another in a direct, hands-on manner – but it faces many challenges in the present moment. American society is radically atomized. Individualism serves as a kind of pseudo-religion, promoting the idea that our most important obligations are to one’s self. Capitalism too has caused upheaval for family life and community vitality. More people live in cities than ever before, and more people live alone than ever before. These aren’t fertile grounds for nurturing the kind of ties that Dreher found at work in St. Francisville – the kind of ties that inspired him to uproot his family from Philadelphia and plant new roots back home.
Community can be a source of life. Like marriage, family is something that must be worked at continuously. You won’t always find answers by just looking inward. To love because you must doesn’t mean you accept. Time may not be on your side. Sometimes we simply can’t know. The lessons contained in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming are many and heartfelt.