In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher has paid a poignant tribute to his sister and family, and at the same time given us one of the finest pictures of a caring small-town American community that I’ve ever read.
Dreher’s younger sister, Ruthie Leming, lived just outside of small St. Francisville, Louisiana, in the even smaller community of Starhill, her whole life. She grew up, married, began raising her own daughters within walking distance of her parents, and taught hundreds of her neighbors’ children there. Her brother, Rod, got out as soon as he could. He became a journalist, also started a family, and moved around between Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
Then, at age 40, Ruthie got sick with cancer. She spent the next nineteen months continuing to live life to the fullest by loving her family and friends, which as Dreher explains, was something she had practiced her whole life.
But, what is perhaps even more beautiful and amazing is the love that her community gives back to her and her family as they, to quote the psalm, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Less than two years later she died. But only after an incredible mutual outpouring of compassion and sacrificial service.
All of this serves to reveal to Dreher virtues in his sister and in his small hometown that he had not seen or appreciated before. What makes this story so important is that these virtues are in fact denigrated by much in American culture. Ruthie’s, and her small town’s, “little way” of living life might seem provincial, lacking ambition, even a dead end to self-fulfillment and prosperity. But, in fact, this way of living creates a close-knit habitat where relationships flourish and people can and will take care of their neighbor. This becomes so powerfully clear to Dreher and his wife when they come back for Ruthie’s funeral that, taking advantage of some providential circumstances, they leave Philadelphia to make their home, back home, in St. Francisville.
This wonderful story is wonderfully told by Dreher. The narrative moves along. Flashbacks to Rod’s and Ruthie’s childhoods are funny, touching, and essential to understanding them and their wider family and community. But, perhaps most important to making this story real, is Dreher’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of Ruthie, their family, and himself. There is much to be admired, but I can believe this story because all of these people also have their faults – serious ones. All is not harmony and light. In fact, the intrafamily conflict is integral to Dreher’s telling, and our appreciation, of the story. As Dreher’s Christian faith teaches, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” It is also Dreher’s faith that allowed him to see God’s grace at work suffusing a devastating and tragic situation with light and love.