Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun, died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. She lived what she called a “little” life. But because of the influence of her memoir, “The Story of a Soul,” Thérèse quickly became one of the most popular saints of the twentieth century. Canonized in 1925, Thérèse inspired thousands to follow her “little way” of commitment to love the tasks and people we meet in everyday life.
It’s no wonder, then, that Rod Dreher refers obliquely to St. Thérèse in the title of his newest book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (Grand Central Publishing, 2013). Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, and part hagiography, Dreher’s book is the story of his saintly younger sister’s untimely death, his return to his hometown, and his struggle to understand what it means to live a Good Life (capitalization his). Like Thérèse , Ruthie Leming lived a small life of great love, and died too young. Unlike Thérèse , she didn’t leave behind a memoir, but here Dreher steps in to fill the void.
Dreher, well-known as a conservative columnist, leaves politics aside (for the most part) and writes for a popular audience in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Using the example of Ruthie’s life, he argues that a rooted commitment to community – rather than a restless, relentless pursuit of career success – is the key to a full life.
It isn’t a conclusion that came easily to Dreher. Growing up in the small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana (pop. 1,700), he couldn’t wait to get out. Bullied for his geeky, introverted ways, he felt unable to fit in to a culture that his younger sister Ruthie swam through like a fish in the river behind their home. Dreher left for an accelerated high school in Natchitoches, while Ruthie spent high school at home, fishing, watching baseball, going out on dates with her sweetheart and future husband, and graduating as valedictorian and homecoming queen. After college, Dreher followed newspaper jobs to Baton Rouge, then New York, and Washington D.C. Ruthie married her highschool sweetheart, who had joined the National Guard, and after college she began teaching sixth grade in the West Feliciana public schools. Ruthie and Mike made their home right across the road from the house she and Rod had grown up in, while Rod and his eventual wife Julie climbed ladders from Florida to Texas to New York to Philadelphia.
Ruthie’s story unfolds like a country song: if the first verse was full of pickup trucks, young love, and fishing in the river, the second verse packs a gut-punch of sorrow. Ruthie, a non-smoker, was struck with terminal lung cancer at the age of forty. While her family grieved, Ruthie accepted the diagnosis as God’s will. She chose to remain innocent of the details of her diagnosis, refusing to research the disease at all, so that she could avoid anxiety. Instead, she sought to enjoy every day that she had – which turned out to number nineteen months.
Visiting St. Francisville for longer periods during Ruthie’s illness, Dreher was stunned by the way the town and community supported his family. Friends regularly helped his parents with their property, and brought meals over to the Leming’s. At a concert in the town park, the community raised $43,000 to help cover Ruthie’s medical expenses.
Like a good country song does, the book ends with a moral and with a paean of praise for the common man. After Ruthie’s death, Dreher decided to move home to be with his family and to try to practice the “little way” of grace and stability which his sister had modeled. He’s honest about how difficult this could be – “Communitarian romanticism is fine, but what do you do when your past isn’t even past, but is in fact jogging down your street, and stepping onto your front porch to say hello?” He details some of his struggles to reconcile old hurts from his father and sister, ultimately accepting most of the responsibility for any estrangements onto himself.
I have only a few minor quibbles with the book. Because The Little Way is a deeply religious book, referring often to theology and faith in Jesus, and detailing mystical experiences of connection with God, I was surprised that Dreher never discussed the role of the church in providing community. The way that Ruthie’s hometown supported her family is that way that the body of believers in the church are supposed to support each other, and I was surprised that Dreher’s conclusion about rootedness didn’t mention being rooted in a church. As believers, we should be supporting our communities regardless of whether or not we have three generations worth of family history and connections.
Secondly, Dreher often refers to Ruthie as a “saint,” and in the final chapters of the book he recounts his struggle to come to terms with the mild estrangement they’d suffered in their adult lives. While he’d been able to resolve past hurts with his father, Ruthie had always refused to discuss such things. Finally, Dreher concludes that the blame for their misunderstandings lay entirely with him – that their estrangement had resulted from ways he had treated Ruthie in their youth. But Dreher’s story suffers from his need to saint his sister; the story would only be strengthened if he were willing to admit that she, too, shared the blame for the distance in their relationship. Though at some points he admits that both of them were “broken” people, ultimately he places too much of the burden for their broken relationship onto himself.
All in all, though, the moral message of the The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a healthy antidote for a culture that is obsessed with “having it all” and that regularly privileges big cities over small towns. In some sense, Dreher’s book is like a modern rule of St. Benedict, calling some (if not all) of us to take a vow of “stability,” learning humility through the discipline of place and community. We may not all have a place like St. Francisville to return to, but we all have a chance to invest in that kind of community wherever we are now.