Ruthie Leming lived in a little way. While her older brother left their rural Louisiana hometown to chase a big city journalism career, Ruthie stayed, married her high school sweetheart, became a teacher at the local school, and raised her three daughters a stone’s throw from her childhood home. When terminal cancer took hold of her, her brother watched as the town did its best to fill the void of the sick, faithful mother and wife, then cried with them at her graveside. It was the little way of life that drew her big brother back home to Louisiana.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life is a memoir, biography, and meditation all rolled up in one. Rod Dreher traces the divergent paths he and his little sister took in life, from their different experiences as children and adolescents, to their very different lives as adults. Ruthie’s cancer diagnosis rocked the Dreher/Leming clan and whole St. Francisville community, including the many students whose paths she had altered. Dreher chronicles how Ruthie, her family, and community coped during her last days and eventual death. But he also lays bare his attempts to reconcile with his sister and father, who always resented his Francophile tastes and big-city exodus. Dreher’s return alone couldn’t fix the wounded relationships in the family. And it’s in that realization after Ruthie’s death where Dreher does some of his most poignant storytelling.
Little Way shows how exhausting it can be to understand even our own families and why building and sustaining meaningful relationships will always be lifelong work. Dreher’s struggle with his sister and father, and even with Ruthie’s oldest daughter, show how bitterly we fight and how elusive reconciliation can be. In the last chapter, during a trip in which Dreher treated Ruthie’s oldest daughter with a trip to France, she nearly leveled him with the revelation about her deceased mother: Ruthie had never approved of Dreher’s moving or his career and, worse, his attempts to grow closer to his nieces would likely be in vain because of Ruthie’s opinion lingering in her daughters’ minds. Dreher never shies away from telling the truth about complicated family relationships.
That transparency almost wrecks the book early on. One Christmas when newly married Dreher and his wife came back to Louisiana and labored to make an authentic French meal for the family, the Lemings and Dreher’s parents refused to eat, protesting Dreher’s turning his back on his country roots. The episode paints some of the story’s protagonists as so vindictive as to make them difficult to sympathize with. Even with the rich narrative, I occasionally wanted to see more showing rather than telling, and some passages read more as a string of blogged vignettes rather than a connected narrative.
Yet these days we feel the book’s themes more and more, which demonstrates its timeliness. While tracking Ruthie’s cancer, Little Way illuminates Dreher’s own struggle with family, place, and vocation — with calling. The conflict between city and country living, between the change-the-world attitude and live-faithfully-in-your community ethos, are implicit throughout the story. Little Way is at once prescriptive and descriptive, but Dreher has been quick to point out since the book’s release that his way will not be everyone’s way, nor will Ruthie’s way. One particular passage perhaps best illustrates the need for both ways.
September 11th happened long before Ruthie’s cancer took hold, but long after Dreher’s Louisiana family made known their disappointment with him. Dreher, who was working then as a New York newspaper columnist, watched the morning unfold from his Brooklyn home. After the first World Trade Center tower collapsed, Dreher stood on the Brooklyn Bridge with notebook and tape recorder in hand, staring at the second tower. Facing the biggest story any newspaperman could hope to cover, Dreher decided to turn and go back home to his wife and young son rather than to rush into the chaos.
Did I have the right to risk my life for the sake of a story? How could I leave my wife a widow and my son fatherless because I found the danger exciting and wanted to write a better column for the next day’s paper?
That decision, I think, represents all that makes possible Dreher’s return to his hometown. At the apex of his journalism career he could have chosen the “big way” by placing himself in the middle of the biggest story in decades. But Dreher chose the little way of the moment: to remove himself from the headlines and leave, as he puts it, “the center of the world,” and return to watch the day unfold with his wife and son. That decision embodies the message echoing throughout Little Way: sometimes our highest calling is simply to be with our spouses, children, friends, family, and communities. Sometimes the biggest way to live is to do the small, hard things of a quiet life spent trying to relate to — and reconcile with — those who know us best. Some will be called to rush toward those doomed buildings and leave others behind, like many did on September 11th. But many more of us are meant to return to our homes, go about our non-romantic jobs, and love no less faithfully those whom we see each day.
Little Way is about dying, too. Some of us will die in moments of great heroism and sacrifice. But others of us will die like Ruthie: in our own living rooms coughing up the cancer that has ravaged our last days and seared the memories of our children. We will have lived our last days within earshot of the same good people who saw us into the world, who sent us money at graduation, who stood beside us at our wedding, who sent us flowers at the birth of our children, and who will carry our caskets to our graves. And that is no less heroic.
These are messages we need to hear more of these days, especially we Christian millennials. Between Matt’s dustup with the Radical Movement, Anthony Bradley’s provocative thoughts on the “new legalism” of the change-the-world ethos, and Keith Miller’s pushback against suburb critics, it’s pretty clear we’re still tempted by the one-size-fits-all lifestyle that will unleash all the social, spiritual, and cultural capital Christianity offers the world. Little Way reminds us that no such universal lifestyle exists outside the call to live well-ordered lives devoted to Christ. That requires one big thing: knowing where on the big way/little way spectrum we fall. It requires each of us to know our various callings (vocation, family, place, etc.), to know that others will have different callings, and to respect (if not appreciate) the diversity therein. That’s a freeing message, and by the end of the book Dreher begins to grasp what that freedom looks like. Ruthie — for all the wonderful things she accomplished — never quite did, holding grudges against her brother. Our time is better spent doing our part to unleash Christianity’s capital in little and big ways, among our cities, towns, and suburbs, than it is spent telling each other why our ways and places are better. Our time is better spent reconciling with those whose ways we may have unjustly spurned.
I hope Little Way emboldens us to start thinking about the little ways to which we’ve been called, which are no less important than the big ways we’ve been told to live. Ruthie and Dreher show us how to live confidently in the way each of us must go. In a loud and crowded epoch, Little Way tells us to find a sanctuary’s still and quiet, whether it comes in the peace of the rural landscape or in the shadow of concrete and steel. And from there how to live and how to die.
Michael Reneau is the communications manager for Summit Ministries and lives in Manitou Springs, Colorado, with his wife and two sons.