Monday, April 8, 2013

A review of Rod Dreher's new book: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

This evening, a package arrived in the mail for me: my pre-ordered copy of Rod Dreher's new book, titled The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

It was really exciting to get a real-life copy of this book, especially since I was one of the people who had the tremendous honor of reading this book when it was still in manuscript form.  It was such a privilege to see the book evolve during the process of its creation, and Rod should be very proud of what he has accomplished with this book.

Because I got to read the book a little early, I also got to write my review a little early.  Here, for anyone interested in buying and reading this book--and I hope you are!--is what I wrote:

A Tale of Two Siblings: A review of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming 

You may have heard that Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, is a tearjerker.  That is true.  I pride myself on not crying while reading books; it’s a lit. major thing.  But when Rod shared an early draft of the chapter chronicling his sister’s death, my tears started falling as I read--not gentle drips, but the sort of crying that alarms the family and causes shortages in the facial tissue supply.  This unwonted damp-eyed condition continued sporadically throughout my reading of the manuscript, and I defy anybody to read this book and not get at least a little misty-eyed at key points, even if you’re a lot tougher than I am.

    But it would be a mistake to think that this is ultimately a sad book, a book about loss and death.  Those are certainly parts of it, and nobody who has heard anything about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming can pretend to be surprised by those parts.  This, however, is a story of hope and healing and life, an intimate look at a remarkable community and the people in it, a song in honor of the kind of place we all wish we were from or could return to; and at its heart, it is a tale of two siblings.

    One was Ruthie, a brown-eyed spunky girl who was as much at home hunting deer as gracing her high school’s homecoming court, a girl in love with her place and her people, who embraced life in St. Francisville, LA as if it were nearly obscene to imagine being happy anywhere else.  The other, of course, was Rod himself, enchanted from his earliest childhood by his great-aunts’ stories of faraway places with magical names like Paris or Tegucigalpa, cut out to be a great reader and a stubborn indoorsman, and slowly growing aware that the same place that made Ruthie say “Home,” with a shining light in her eyes was inexorably choking the life out of him.  High school was bullying and torment until a wonderful opportunity beckoned: a boarding school for gifted children, a school away from home.  It was the first time Rod would metaphorically shake his town’s dust from his feet, but it wouldn’t be the last.

    And that difference between Ruthie and her brother was a painful one, a point on which they simply couldn’t agree.  As life took Rod far away from a place called Starhill and the town of St. Francisville, Ruthie settled down there, marrying, having children, following her dream of teaching in a local school.  This place wasn’t just someplace she lived; it was her place.  It was home.  And for reasons she couldn’t understand, her brother had rejected it, choosing instead to live in places as strange as New York City and to make a living by writing, something that almost seemed dishonest from her perspective.  But to her brother, going away from St. Francisville meant finding people who didn’t think it was odd to drown yourself in books, to read and think and talk and write about big ideas, to care about applying those concepts to your own view of life and its important qualities, to write well for the sheer joy of it; going away from home meant survival, and life, and the realization that for him, too, there was the possibility of a community, albeit of a different type.

    But a strange symmetry was rising up between these two very different siblings.  For as Rod struggled with theological truths, religious practices, and ideas about God, Ruthie simply prayed, and simply believed.  And as Rod wrote a book passionately defending the old traditional ideas about home and family and education and food, Ruthie was simply living those things--or, truth be told, some of them; to the end, for instance, she dismissed her brother’s foodie habits as a fancy innovation that was as much an attack on her way of living as his family’s decision to homeschool.

    To the end.  And that end came so suddenly, and with so little warning, in the cruel form of lung cancer that struck this vital and happy woman from out of the blue, and for seemingly no reason at all.

    And it is here that The Little Way of Ruthie Leming defies its tearjerker reputation, because it’s not really a story of Ruthie being struck down by illness and death--it’s a story of her ability to embrace her illness with great faith, to refuse to her last day to give up or give in, to keep fighting and keep going, and to be as present to her family as she could be throughout her suffering.  And it’s a story of a remarkable group of people, her people, her hometown community, rising around her, surrounding her with love and care for the rest of her days, and sending her off, when the time came, in proper style, with the strangely regal mingling of love, laughter, and grief with which a people lays to rest a beloved daughter, one of their own.

    In this mystery of faith through suffering and love beyond death Rod witnessed something remarkable.  It was something he might never have appreciated if he had not left his hometown for so long, or been so often away from his sister’s side.  Ruthie was not, he is quick to say even today, some kind of plaster saint; she was a real person, with real flaws.  But the manner of her life, the type of Christian resignation (which is not a defeated thing at all) she showed in her death, and the real witness of love poured out by so many who knew her was a powerful thing, something all too rare in our world of grumpy empiricism.  And for the first time, Rod began to see beyond the hurts of the past to the truth of this place that had always sparked Ruthie’s enthusiastic love: this place with names just as magical as Paris or Tegucigalpa:

St. Francisville.



    So in the seeming ending that was Ruthie’s death, Rod and his family begin their new journey home, to be there for his own parents and Ruthie’s children, and to make a free and conscientious choice be part of this amazing community which, in all its quirky reality, is still a place full of love and hope.  Things don’t always work out as they might, and in real life neat, tidy endings would be more trite than happy.  Still, anyone who journeys with Rod along The Little Way of Ruthie Leming will be more uplifted than sad, and more joyful than sorrowful--and one gets the strong sense that Ruthie herself would insist on both of those things.


Pauli said...

I'm reading the book right now. It is awesome.

Red Cardigan said...

I agree, Pauli! :)