Author: Rod Dreher (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, 2013)
Reviewed by Theresa Forsman
The author, Rod Dreher, and his sister, Ruthie, grew up in Starhill, Louisiana, a tiny community six miles down the road from St. Francisville, a town of 2,000 people near the Mississippi border.
After graduating from LouisianaStateUniversity in 1991, Ruthie returned to her home county, West Feliciana Parish, to teach elementary school. She was still teaching there 19 years later, the wife of a firefighter and mother of three girls, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.
Dreher, who also attended LouisianaState, studied journalism. He worked for a couple of years at the Baton Rouge Advocate before taking a job in Washington, D.C., at the Washington Times. When his sister received her devastating diagnosis, in 2010, Rod was living in Philadelphia, working for The Templeton Fund. He had also worked in New York, Dallas, and Miami. Like his sister, Dreher was married and had three children.
Much of this book is about the community that rallied around Ruthie and her family during her illness and after her death. They made meals, they cut the lawn, they sat in her kitchen talking and laughing. According to Dreher, his sister had always been everyone’s friend. Observing Ruthie and her community during the difficult 18 months between her diagnosis and her death fueled Dreher’s and his wife’s decision, shortly after the funeral, to leave their somewhat itinerant, big-city life behind and move their family to West Feliciana Parish.
I picked up “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” because New York Times columnist David Brooks referred to it recently, in a discussion about forms of community in America today, as “illuminating.” On the book jacket, Brooks is quoted as saying that Rod Dreher and his wife “decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.” Although the story is a celebration of Ruthie Leming and her community, the author doesn’t shrink from the less-celebratory parts of his relationship with Ruthie and that same community. The book’s cover is a photograph of an empty rocking chair on a porch, with a picket fence nearby and lush greenery all around. The porch has a swing, too, and white columns, capturing in every detail that cliché of small-town life as peaceful, pleasant and far removed from the daily drama on Capitol Hill, Wall Street, and beyond. I don’t have to stray far from this porch, of course, to see the less pleasant side of the picture, and I didn’t have to read very far to understand why Dreher had left. By the end of the book, I wondered if he regretted his decision to return.
When the author was 14, he joined a group of kids from his school on a summer vacation trip to the beach. On that trip, several of the older boys decided that Dreher, a popular but studious boy in his class, would be their target.
“…they had me down on the hotel room floor, threatening to take my pants off in front of the girls standing on the beds giggling. …I thrashed and flailed and begged them to let me go. I called out to the chaperones, the mothers of classmates, and begged them to help me. They stepped over me, lying pinned to the floor, and left the room. The gang let me go without stripping me naked—they probably only intended to give me a good scare—and I fled down the hall, into my room.”
By the time school started, nobody wanted to be friends with the boy who had been humiliated at the hotel. Older boys shoved him and the popular girls insulted him. At 16, against his father’s wishes and inspired by a teacher who had mentored him and other “bookish outcasts,” Dreher went away to a school for the academically advanced, Louisiana School of Math, Science and the Arts, in Natchitoches, for his junior and senior years.
That was the beginning of what Ruthie saw as Dreher’s elitism, and she punished him for it. Ruthie, valedictorian and homecoming royalty, who “had lots of friends and never talked about anybody,” put down her brother plenty. Her two youngest daughters didn’t like Uncle Rod, based on what they’d heard from their mother. When Dreher and his young wife, visiting West Feliciana from New York one Christmas, spent the day making bouillabaisse for the extended family, Ruthie, her husband and her parents wouldn’t eat it, apparently considering it a too-citified version of a common Cajun dish.
Shortly after moving back to West Feliciana in search of that “deep bench” of love and support that Ruthie had, Dreher asked his father, whom he called Paw, if he had any big regrets in life. He was stunned by the answer: “I can see now, at the end of my life, that it would have been better if after your Mama and I got married, we had packed up and left here.” Paw, the man who had resented his son’s leaving home at 16, now filled him in on the mistreatment he and his wife had suffered at the hands of not-so-nice relatives, concluding “I was a sucker.”
You might say the bad behaviors described in this book are nothing more or less than human nature, including sibling rivalry, ostracizing of “the other,” and jealousies both petty and outsized, that they are no worse in small-town Louisiana than in major metropolises. Apparently no better, either.
A note here about the author: Rod Dreher is someone whose social-political views, in some ways, are markedly different from the founding principles of Ethical Culture and, I assume, from those of most Ethical Culture members. He is a devout Christian, a political conservative, and an opponent of same-sex marriage. Now a columnist at The American Conservative, he has been criticized for being both too liberal and too conservative. His and his family’s Christianity, including many references to prayer, are part of “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.” His social-political views are not.
As the product of a small town, as someone who didn’t fit in and spent 20 years in big cities both north and south before moving back home to try again, and as a decent writer, Dreher is a qualified dissector of the tradeoffs between familiar community and distant opportunities. These are tradeoffs everyone makes—by default as Paw did, by choice as Ruthie did, or as a wounded wanderer like Dreher.
Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.