At first it sounds like a familiar tale: a small-town boy eager to break free from his roots and follow the lure of city life. In doing so, he comes to reject much of his upbringing, and his new sensibilities distance him from his family and friends at home.
Plenty of memoirs and pages of literature capture similar stories. Yet for veteran journalist Rod Dreher, this narrative took an unexpected turn when his sister was diagnosed with cancer at age 40. In witnessing the tremendous outpouring of love and support from residents of his hometown, Dreher and his wife begin to rethink the significance of small town life and the value of the deep ties that can only be offered by neighbors and family members. And in seeing how his sister, an unassuming schoolteacher, courageously embraced her struggle with terminal cancer, he comes to understand that some of the greatest joys in life are the simplest ones that can be discovered close to home.
Already hailed by many critics as one of the most important books of the year, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life is a powerful reflection on the importance of family and community. Set in the Deep South, St. Francisville, Louisiana, Dreher’s account is an honest and very personal attempt to make sense of loss—not only of his sister, but of his own ambitions and desires. Yet, the intertwined story of Dreher and his sister is also a story of hopeful rediscovery and reorientation of life’s priorities.
At age 25 Dreher moved to Washington, DC to work as the television critic for the Washington Times, a job that he was sure would be his one-way ticket out of small-town America. His promising journalism career would eventually take him and his family from Washington to New York to Dallas and eventually Philadelphia. It was a life lived in stark contrast to that of his sister Ruthie. She was a country girl, not only content with never leaving her small town, but boastful about what it had to offer. She enjoyed the Saturday night crawfish broils along the river, the dance halls where she could drink beer and socialize with the same folks she grew up with, and the fact that she not only knew all her students, but also understand the family backgrounds from which they came. While her older brother was busy moving from city to city and hobnobbing with society’s elites, she lamented the fact that he was wasting money renting apartments and not buying a home to settle and establish roots.
Also central to Dreher’s story are his parents, permanent fixtures in St. Francisville, who remain beloved by the locals who affectionately call them “Mam and Paw.” For decades their home had been a revolving door for guests and visitors for Sunday dinner—they willingly served up food and strong drink to anyone who happened to stop by for a visit. Yet despite such affable personalities, Dreher’s relationship with his father deteriorated during his high school years. While his father was a man of the land, Dreher was a lover of books, art, and film. He resented his father for never understanding these interests of his and his father was equally hurt by his decision to abandon his hometown.
Ruthie viewed Dreher’s life in equally suspect terms. When he would return home over holidays the two got along fine, yet there was an unspoken criticism that lingered below the surface. Once when Dreher and his wife Julie decided to prepare a French soup for dinner, the rest of the family refused to eat it—dismissing it as too pretentious for their tastes. On another occasion, when Ruthie’s oldest daughter visited her uncle in Philadelphia, Ruthie scoffed at the fact that Dreher took her out to one of the city’s finest restaurants for dinner. While neither Dreher nor Ruthie ever doubted the other’s love, the impasse resulting from their different personalities and values loomed over every conversation and interaction.
In the winter of 2010 Ruthie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer. As she was an otherwise healthy 40-year-old woman who had never smoked, this sent shockwaves through the family and reverberations were felt all throughout St. Francisville. While Ruthie’s prognosis wasn’t great, she remained resilient. Meanwhile, her battle seemed to bring out the best in those around her, as well as everyday strangers whom she had never met. Family friends banded together to tend to Ruthie, her husband Mike, and their three children, cooking meals, shopping, and tending to household chores. A concert was held that raised $43,000 to cover the medical bills for Ruthie and support the Leming family. Dreher, who flew in from Philadelphia for the concert, was struck by a friend who remarked, “This is how it is supposed to be. This is what folks do for each other.”
As Ruthie’s illness progressed, Dreher spent time reflecting on the profound acts of kindness he experienced taking place in St. Francisville. How had Ruthie, a quiet schoolteacher who resisted attention at every turn, garnered such affection and respect from her community? The experience served as a mirror in which Dreher examined his own life. Dreher and his family had spent the past decade following professional opportunities that relocated their family every few years. This transient lifestyle had prevented him and his wife from ever fully establishing roots and meaningful friendships—at least not like the kind that Ruthie had. He and Julie also begin to wonder what this would mean for their children. For Dreher, his roots were undeniable; he’d always be able to return home to Louisiana where he’d been raised. Yet for his children, where would home be?
What Dreher discovered—through the life and death of Ruthie Leming—isn’t that home is a perfect place. It is, however, a place where one’s roots provide permanent ties that foster a spirit of goodness that is difficult to replicate in other places. When Ruthie died in September 2011, 19 months after her initial diagnosis of cancer, there was sadness for the Leming and Dreher families and the rest of the community that had watched, prayed, and cared for her during her illness. But the spirit of Ruthie Leming evoked joy and reminded the citizens of St. Francisville of the things that really matter in life: namely, each other and one’s relationship with his maker. In fact, these two things reinforced one another and provided the deep soil in which the life-giving spirit of the town could flourish.
In the days, weeks, and months after his sister’s death, Dreher spent much time considering the life of Ruthie Leming. Among the words used to describe Ruthie, stability, contentment, and simplicity best capture her life. While Dreher had spent years following his ambition up and down the East Coast, Ruthie stayed put. In his newspaper columns and books and in conversations with friends and other interlocutors, Dreher lamented the fragmentation of family life and the ever-expansive role of the state. Ruthie, however, anchored her family at home and her fellow citizens in St. Francisville weren’t dependent on the state for their needs—they took care of one another. It was after this realization that the Dreher family made the decision—three months after Ruthie’s death—to pack up their life in Philadelphia and to return home for good.
In the closing pages of The Little Way, Dreher turns to St. Benedict of Nursia, who developed his famous Rule for the monks living in community. Members of the order that now bears his name take a vow of stability, committing to live out the rest of their lives in the same monasteries where they take their vows. According to Dreher, “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all. They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility they could never be happy.” When he and Julie informed their friends in Philadelphia that they would be leaving, he initially expected a wave of Green Acres jokes. Instead, he discovered that many others shared in his longing for stability and equally desired the family and communal ties to which the Dreher family was returning. In making the bold and courageous decision to follow the path of St. Benedict, Dreher discovered that same happiness that Ruthie had known all along.
Some readers of The Little Way might conclude that Dreher is insisting they must either stay put forever or immediately return to their hometowns. But this overlooks the central lesson of his account. While Dreher does indeed lament the loosening of family and communal bonds and the transient nature of our present age, his message isn’t a uniform call to never leave home. Instead, it’s a call to recognition—a realization—of the importance of family and community wherever one may be in life or wherever you’ve come to call home. For some, perhaps many, this may entail a reconsideration of their roots and a desire or need to return to their places of origin. For others, it may very well be a call to entrench deeper in their present locations, knowing that our local communities can be indispensable sources of love and support. This is what Ruthie Leming wanted her brother to realize, and it wasn’t until after her passing that this became clear.
In his letter to the Church in Thessaloniki, St. Paul admonished the young Christian believers “to aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (Thessalonians 4:11). The Little Way of Ruthie Leming offers a comparable message for modern readers longing to discover something more than a life of fleeting friendships, occasional visits with family, and easy relationships. Drawing from his own experience—and his sister’s legacy—Dreher pricks the soul of the reader and urges that we dig deeper and commit fully to the lives we choose to live and the people and communities that we are privileged to live alongside. From the penthouses of the Upper East Side or the row houses on Capitol Hill, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming might appear simple and ordinary—perhaps even laughable. But those who choose to follow such a path are likely to discover an adventure far more satisfying than any Manhattan skyline or Washington gala has to offer.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life
By Rod Dreher
Grand Central Publishing, 2013