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/228 pages/$25.99)
When Rod Dreher was a boy in southern Louisiana, an eccentric great aunt took him aside one day, and taking his hand, scratched her bony finger across his small pink palm. “You will travel far,” she told him. “Far” in Great Aunt Hilda’s sense of the word had a double meaning, both metaphoric and geographic. To go far one literally had to go far.
Rod’s ambulant ambition didn’t sit too well with his younger sister, Ruthie. You couldn’t have found two more dissimilar siblings. Ruthie was the tomboy, the daddy’s girl, the homecoming queen; Rod was the idealistic bookworm, the one the jocks loved to pick on. While Ruthie was content with the little things her Louisiana parish had to offer (fishing, campouts, barn dances), Rod longed to shake the dust of St. Francisville from his Birkenstocks. Ruthie could never understand this about her older brother. She had always found what she was looking for in her own backyard. Why couldn’t he?
At times Ruthie resented her older brother. He was snob, a poseur. Everything seemed to come easy to him. While Rod sometimes felt the guilt of the free-rider, whose independence was due to his sister remaining at home. This was made apparent every time Rod visited and received his sister’s cold shoulder.
Meanwhile Rod’s career took off, carrying him to all the big cities: Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, Dallas. He even became the voice of a small movement when he wrote a book called Crunchy Cons, about a particular neo-traditionalist sensibility that embraced a counter-cultural yet traditional conservative lifestyle with an emphasis on the small and local.
And then tragedy struck. Ruthie, then mother of three, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. On his visits home to see his ailing sister, Rod was struck by the way friends and neighbors accompanied Ruthie on her cancer journey. This great outpouring of love during his family’s crises was a revelation that completely altered Rod’s view of his hometown. These weren’t the people he remembered from his teen years, the knuckle-dragging bullies and petty queen bees; these were deeply caring townsfolk who had one others’ backs, who helped Rod’s aging father with chores, and watched after his sister’s family while Ruthie’s husband Mike served in Iraq, all while rambling Rod was away in NYC enjoying haute cuisine in fancy bistros and living the intellectual high life. These were self-sacrificing community-minded folks who loved his dying sister like she was their own, which, of course, she was.
For the first time in his life Rod wanted to be a part of that community. Ironically, he found that the same tight community bonds that held him down and held him back when he was a teenager, were all that was holding his family together through their suffering. Rod decided his family needed that spirit of community too. Eventually, thanks to a new blogging gig with a conservative magazine, he was able to move his family to St. Francisville.
BUT THE LITTLE WAY is much more than a coming home story. It is a profound meditation on the perils of ambition, of the Faustian bargain we sometimes make for riches, fame, or power, and the importance of putting limits on one’s ambition. It asks why some of us feel compelled to achieve great deeds, to strive for fame and fortune, while others are able to find happiness and meaning in a small life. Was Rod’s life worth more than Ruthie’s because he had achieved a level of notoriety, while Ruthie remained anonymous? As the lives of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (who first embodied the little way), and Ruthie Leming confirmed, there are many paths to greatness, and one can still achieve great things by living a simple, holy life.
Embracing Ruthie’s example, Rod learns that it is wrong to put the pursuit of career and achievement over family and relationships and place. But it is also wrong to make a cult of family and place. That is the lesson Ruthie, the sixth grade teacher, taught her older brother: the secret to a good life. That is what she can teach us all.
Photo: Creative Commons