The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, is a heartbreaking and beautiful book. The Little Way is Rod Dreher’s brilliant memoir of his sister’s terrible fight with lung cancer and ultimate death, the way her small Louisiana town, St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, rallied round her and her family, and how this ultimately moved Rod to return to the place of his birth and youth. Dreher’s wonderful writing and voice weave together a coherent and compelling narrative of vocation, place, family, and fidelity.
The central characters in this narrative are Ruthie Leming, Dreher’s younger sister, who married her high school sweetheart and, but for a few years away at LSU, remained in St. Francisville, and Rod who yearned to escape from the small town where he was born. Leming is an inspiring teacher and dutiful mother, who lives only a “long stone’s throw” from her parents, Mam and Paw Dreher. Rod, in an act emblematic of our mobile, meritocratic culture, leaves St. Francisville and moves from place to place as he climbs the ladder of journalistic success. Leming remains faithful to her family’s Methodist faith; Dreher loses his and then, many years after a visit to Chartres and the experience of its beauty, is led back to God, first as a Catholic and later as an Orthodox Christian. In the midst of Dreher’s career climb there are visits home – often fraught. Then, in the prime of her life, Ruthie is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. This would be an earth-shattering event for anyone. But, in the case, of Ruthie, it has cosmic dimensions.
Upon receiving her diagnosis, Ruthie forbids her three girls to be angry with God and immediately sees her cancer as an occasion of grace. She insists that good will come through her suffering. And it does. An army of family and friends mobilizes to help Ruthie and her family, embodying an inspiring selflessness and love. Nurses and doctors are moved by Ruthie’s faith and goodness. Rod experiences graces immediately in his own life. Observing the events put into motion by Ruthie’s diagnosis, Dreher asks forgiveness of a cousin he had wronged years earlier and reaches out to writer Andrew Sullivan with whom he had serious and, at times, nasty disagreements. If things ended there, this would be a good story and one worth telling. But it is the transformation that occurs through Ruthie’s death that moves this story from good to great – making it an indispensable read for anyone who seriously considers the questions of vocation and fidelity to place.
With Ruthie’s death, Rod and his wife, Julie, make a decision that they never before seriously considered. After a series of coincidences that can only be called providential, just a few days after Ruthie’s death, Rod and Julie elect to move back to St. Francisville. While it is a sudden decision, it is not made without discernment and reflection. Dreher realizes that what he once had seen as narrow and small – Ruthie’s decision to remain and live in St. Francisville – was in fact an occasion for rich and deep living. Dreher writes, “I had somehow come to think of her living in a small town as equivalent to her living a small life. That was fine by me, if it made her content, but there was about it the air of settling. Or so I thought.” But what Dreher saw and heard following Ruthie’s death proved to him that he was wrong. So he and Julie decide to return to his home.
As Dreher describes it, “Ruthie transfigured,” St. Francisville in his eyes. “Her suffering and death made me see the good that I couldn’t see before. The same communal bonds that appeared to me as chains all those years ago had become my Louisiana family’s lifelines. What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand.” What had once been confining now was a starting point for a richer and deeper life.
Dreher doesn’t recommend that everyone move home. It was because he “went away all those years ago,” that he “could come back not out of guilt, but out of love, of [his] own free choice.” His return is free of pat answers—the tensions with his family and his community did not magically dissolve on his return. Dreher is telling us that we must discern our vocations and follow our callings wherever God leads us. But, and this is crucial, place isn’t unimportant or insignificant. We are not rootless, shiftless beings. Part of the vocational equation, to put it in crude terms, is to privilege or, at the very least, seriously consider where we come from.
Ruthie was being faithful to her vocation when she returned to St. Francisville to raise children, teach school, and build up her community. Dreher, too, was faithful to God in his numerous moves as he climbed the career ladder, but this journey became the occasion for him to see clearly the great good of the place and people from which he came. Dreher realizes that being from St. Francisville wasn’t just another neutral fact from his past. Rather, this was where Dreher’s kinsfolk lived. This was the setting for the stories – the good and the bad – of Dreher’s life. St. Francisville was where the web of relationships and overlapping duties that formed Dreher and sustained his family abided. Dreher isn’t saying that such stories and memories cannot arise in a place where one did not grow up. You have to spend time in a place for it to become home, for, “if you haven’t lived in a place for years,” it is very hard for such stories to arise. “Absence has consequences.”A photo of my home town. Photo Credit: Steve Volkers
What should it mean for all of us? Place shouldn’t be just one more choice among the smorgasbord of choices in our modern liberal democracy. While God may call us away from our home, we still need to recognize that God gave us this place rather than that one. As St. Gregory the Great said, “Things are not to be loved for the sake of a place, but places are to be loved for the sake of their good things.” I grew up in a particular place, among a particular people and this is what makes it good and worthy of my remaining close to it.
Thus, while our duty is first to God and God’s call, duties and vocations are never abstract. Duties and vocations are incarnated in concrete circumstances and, very often, will be incarnated in the very place God gives to us. If we live our lives with this sort of intentionality and discernment, we may still end up journeying far. But many of us may never leave or like Rod, we may end up returning home.
Conor Dugan is a husband, father, lawyer, and writer working and living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his hometown, where he returned in August 2012. (He wrote about his journey home here: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2013/03/the-journey-home/) He invites you, if you are homeless, to think about moving to Grand Rapids and sharing some or many local brews with him.