The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a heartfelt ode that author Rod Dreher wrote for his sister. This book gives new meaning to the word sincerity, and I would be remiss if I did not commend the respect that this man demonstrated for his entire family. In his quest to discover what made his sister tick, the author took an unflinching look at himself, which is never easy. The book opens its heart to the reader, and reveals truths that were both sweet, and sometimes unkind.
Living in a small Louisiana town of 1,700, Ruthie Leming never felt the need to leave. She was a simple girl, and her aspirations revolved around her town, her family, and her community. She knew from the start that home is where the heart is, and her personal goals never took her far from her parents or her neighbors. She married her High School sweetheart, and had three lovely children. She became a school teacher, and by all accounts, was a gifted one at that, inspiring her students to be the very best that they could be. She was a devoted wife, mother, and daughter. She was happy.
Her brother, on the other hand (the book’s author), was not happy with small town life. His aspirations took him away from home, and he became an accomplished journalist. He lived in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. His parents and his sister did not take kindly to his departure, and on more than one occasion, I was very disappointed by the accounts of their behavior. His sister thought that he was too big for his britches, and would toss comments his way during family dinners, to ensure that he knew in no uncertain terms that his leaving home was wrong. At one point, the author and his wife visited his Louisiana family and decided to make everyone dinner. Because the dinner had a fancy name, however, no one would touch it. I found this so disappointing and childish that it colored my view of the family.
In her early 40s, Ruthie was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lung cancer (a surprise for someone who never smoked). She fought the horrific disease for 19 months, and during the battle, she was surrounded by the extraordinary love of her family and her friends. There was no question that this was a remarkable town. Everyone knew everyone. Neighbors were always ready to lend a hand, or a shoulder to cry on. It was a community of faithful, and it was clear that Ruthie was blessed to be part of it. It was impossible not to be moved by her fight. Her determination to keep her family safe from fear while the disease sapped her strength was valiant; she tried to protect them to the end. When cancer finally robbed this community of their beloved Ruthie, the heart of the town stopped beating for a few moments. Everyone was devastated, and this portion of the book was completely heartbreaking.
After the death of his sister, Rod Dreher wanted back in to the community that he left so many years ago. Seeing first hand the warmth of a tight-knit town propelled him to move his own wife and children “home.” (I thought very highly of his wife for doing this, as she had her own hometown in Texas that she left to be with Rod.) Regardless, the move was made, and here Rod was forced to come to terms with a troubling discovery, that his sister had unkind words to say about him when he was not around. I found this to be terribly sad, because life is just too short to pay heed to petty issues. Love your family for who they are.
The author repeatedly chastised himself for pursuing selfish dreams, and for forsaking the love of his hometown for his own interests. (The author does eventually note that he does not regret the life that he led before returning to his roots, and for that admission, I say thank you.) Overall, however, he maintains that there is no true happiness to be found in large cities, because neighbors don’t know neighbors. The gist here is that people essentially live in bubbles of self-indulgence while missing out on true happiness. That happiness, according to the author, can only be found in the zip code of your youth, where roots have been growing for generations. You should know everyone that surrounds you, and you should always be ready and willing to be there for them in their time of need.
Is this a nice message? You bet. I agree that people today are too busy to know one another. I agree that we could do more to be present for those who love us the most. I agree that a simple life can certainly be a happy one. Material wealth isn’t impressive, and shambling up corporate ladders will leave many feeling hollow rather than accomplished. Where the author and I part ways, however, is the assertion that a town of 1,700 is the only place to find true fulfillment. That it’s selfish to want more for yourself or your children. That’s it’s indulgent to pursue a career that takes you away from you parents. None of this, in my opinion, is true. People leave home all the time for academics, for employment, for love. It does not mean that they don’t adore, or miss the extended family that they have left in the community of their youth. It also doesn’t mean that they don’t get homesick. I think that a successful life is one where you find love, intellectual fulfillment, and spiritual health. It’s a life where you not only cherish your family, but are there for them in their time of need (even if you have to travel a great distance to be there). That’s my version of perfection. Is it the case for everyone? No, of course not, and I would not determine that this is right for you. Everyone has their own path, and strong extended families support one another during life pursuits.
Do I think that Ruthie Leming was a good person, who had faith in God, and a wonderful family? Of course. She was blessed. Cancer robbed this family of a loving member, and they will forever be changed. Such loss is also true of many, many other families. The one thing about cancer is that it steals lives indiscriminately. Thousands of people could write similar tributes to their missed loved ones, and each would be full of unyielding heartbreak. I do hope, however, that the people who are left behind on this earth are not blanketed by guilt for having lived their own lives. Because that would be another tragedy.
3 stars for The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. While I don’t agree with the book’s takeaway, the pages are full of heart, and any sibling would be lucky to experience this kind of devotion.