The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.
I’ve heard excellent things about Rod Dreher’s memoir of his sister Ruthie’s journey with cancer and its effect on his life decisions. And it was a really good book. However, this book is one that should come with a warning: keep reading. Keep reading to the very end, and don’t assume that you understand what Mr. Dreher is trying to say in his story unless you’ve read it all. Even then, you’ll most likely shut the book with a thoughtful look on your face and in a contemplative mood—my favorite take-aways from any story.
On the surface, The Little Way is a book about a courageous and spirited woman who lived a life of service and good works and died at too young an age. Dreher repeatedly calls her a “saint”, and this from a man who was Catholic and converted to Orthodoxy and who believes in “saints” who are singular people especially endowed with God’s grace, not as I believe that we are all saints if we trust in Jesus. Ruthie Leming seems at first to be an uncomplicated, straightforward, country girl who loved teaching school, drinking beer and celebrating life with her friends, and caring for her family. The cancer that eventually ended her life was for Ruthie something to treat according to the doctors’ advice and then ignore as much as she could. As we get to know Ruthie more and more through the pages of Mr. Dreher’s book, however, she is revealed to have depths of character and even faults that go unnoticed and unsuspected in the beginning of the book. Maybe it’s the cancer itself, and its influence in Ruthie’s circle of friends and family, that reveal Ruthie’s essential spirit and her long-lasting influence over her family and her hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Mr. Dreher’s relationship with his sister, and indeed with his entire family and hometown, turns out to be complicated, too. Suffice it to say that Mr. Dreher and his wife and children try an experiment with the old conundrum of whether or not “you can’t go home again”, and the results are, well, mixed and complex. The Drehers move back to St. Francisville after Ruthie’s death because of something attractive about the way the town supported and loved Ruthie and her family through Ruthie’s illness and death. However, the family tensions and small town prejudices that drove Rod Dreher to leave home in the first place before he even finished high school are still evident. The question isn’t really whether or not you can go home again, but rather what will happen to you as an adult, who has been formed by all of the many settings in which you’ve lived, once you get there? Can an adult who’s lived in Washington, D.C. and New York City and seen Paris ever be content with what Mr. Dreher calls “the little way”?
I want to suggest this book to my Eldest Daughter who will be moving back to Houston soon after several years in graduate school in Nashville, but I don’t want her to get the wrong message from my recommendation. Again, although Mr. Dreher certainly buys into Wendell Berry’s localism and idealistic valuing of community, the book indicates, if you read it all the way through, that creating community among loving but flawed people isn’t easy. And of course, he’s right: those of us who love the Lord and live in the light of His grace are all saints, but we’re broken saints, physically, mentally and spiritually. We get cancer; we make harsh judgments, we hurt each other; and we love one another. All mixed up together. And it’s worth working through the messiness in one place with a specific group of people to call our own community–unless you have to escape that particular place and group in order to find your own “saintliness” and way to Grace.
Wherever you are in your journey away from or towards home and hometown values and community, you’ll find food for thought and discussion in Rod Dreher’s book. It’s much more than just a cancer memoir.