The Little Way of Ruthie Leming isn’t quite what one expects. The title alludes to the little way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, but Ruthie Leming was not a saint. She has no little way that could be wholeheartedly endorsed as a universally valid spiritual practice. And the pathos of the story derives not so much from her own story, gutwrenching as it is, as from the struggle of her only brother—the author—to come to terms with it.
The basic outline of Ruthie’s story will be familiar to readers of Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative’s website. Ruthie was 40 when she was diagnosed with a viciously aggressive form of lung cancer. She finally succumbed 18 months later, leaving behind three daughters (Hannah, Rebekah, and Claire), a husband (Mike), her parents, and her brother. Her serene courage in the face of catastrophe inspires and changes many of those around her, especially Rod.
Ruthie also left behind, and was in the intervening months loved and supported by, the community of Starhill in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana—“one of the last real places in America,” as one of her brother’s friends later describes it. Dreher tells the story of Ruthie’s life and death against the backdrop of the place and people to which she belonged, and to which she was unquestioningly loyal. It is a beautiful story that never cheaply tugs at a single heartstring. Dreher’s disciplined rejection of sentimentality makes for an incredibly moving narrative.
Whether Ruthie’s story means precisely what the author thinks it means is less clear.
Dreher begins by portraying Ruthie in quasi-Rousseauan terms as an unspoiled child of nature, uncorrupted because uninterested in civilization’s higher echelons. She cares for abandoned animals, fishes, excels at sports, and gets into fights, sometimes on her brother’s behalf. We see her as a teenager, shooting at a deer and answering her Paw’s question whether she has hit her target with the joyful cry, “Hell yeah, I did.” Later, we encounter her as a young woman dancing un-self-consciously on the bar at a Cajun hangout. She liked to drink and make out down by the river.
For Dreher, all of this conveys the essential core of Ruthie’s personality: in stark contrast to himself, she suffered from no crippling anxiety, no paralyzing self-analysis. No restlessness, either. “She was satisfied with what she had in front of her,” he writes. Either by nature or by an act of will, she was a happy and contented member of the Starhill community.
That is impossible for Dreher. As a child, he is a dreamy indoors kid trapped in a practical outdoors world. He is of little use to his father and, as will happen to dreamy indoors kids, he eventually becomes a target of the mouth-breathing set at school. Soon after one especially scarring episode of bullying, he finds freedom by enrolling at a boarding school in distant Natchitoches. College follows, and a journalism career that takes him to ever-more-distant cities. He never comes to hate West Feliciana, to which his family has many and variegated ties; indeed, he comes to respect and champion its virtues. But he is not of it, and he is glad to be out.
Ruthie never understood. She liked where she was from and apparently never considered leaving. She married her high school sweetheart, took a teaching job at the local school, and built a home on her parents’ property. She accepted everything about Starhill just as it was. The place nurtured her soul as much as it confined her brother’s.
This fundamental difference in outlook finally creates a chasm between Ruthie and Rod. There is the time, for example, when they were both in school at LSU, eating lunch with one of Rod’s friends. Rod and his friend begin to mouth the usual sort of stereotyped undergraduate philosophical musings about Nietzsche and the death of God. Ruthie doesn’t demur, argue, or laugh them off. She is simply contemptuous. “What is wrong with y’all? … Listen to you. You sit here for hours talking about this crap, and it doesn’t mean anything. You’re just talking. You’re not doing anything!”
Dreher reads this as evidence of her incapacity, or at least disdain, for abstract reflection unrelated to immediately practical concerns. But more fundamentally, Ruthie must have suspected that her brother and his poseur friends studied philosophy not so much to discover the truth of things as to develop an arsenal to be used against West Feliciana, their family, and everything she loved.
This raises the question of what it means to be faithful. For Ruthie—as for many people—it meant to not question that to which one is obligated, one’s own. Rod was more concerned about being faithful to his perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful—whatever that might mean for his loyalties to place and kin. Neither’s conception of faithfulness was capacious enough to include the other’s.
Thus, for example, Ruthie does not wish to know the details surrounding her diagnosis. She does not research her disease online, she asks few questions, and she refuses to hear her prognosis. Her primary concern is to remain faithful—to her family, her community, her God, her friends, her students. And she is worried that knowing all the facts about her disease will make this impossible, that she will sink into self-pity and anxiety.
Rod is baffled by this approach. He cannot understand that Ruthie’s principled rejection of knowledge about her disease allows her to be faithful to the most important things in her life. He has “difficulty in squaring her confident faith in God’s providence with her white-knuckled refusal to admit any facts that stood to undermine her hope.” Dreher attributes this stance to her “active” nature and her “commitment to duty, even to the point of self-sacrifice.” But this may be too moralistic an interpretation. Ruthie was committed to being faithful to that which was her own, which isn’t quite the same as self-sacrifice. This component of her character is her glory, but because it is also ruthlessly exclusionary it is also her limitation.
In the months leading up to Ruthie’s death Rod begins to see what he has missed in living the life unrooted. Friends, neighbors, extended family, even strangers give deeply of their resources and their time to help Ruthie and her family. Testimonials to her deep and lasting impact on others multiply. In this dying observed, Dreher shows us a community unified, even sanctified, by love—a community whose storytelling, casual neighborly interaction, and bonds of friendship added up to so much freedom from loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation. “We saw, here in our town, in the life and death of Ruthie Leming, a foreshadowing of the redemption of the world,” Rod says in his eulogy. It is a conclusion amply supported by his narrative. I defy any living person with a soul to read these chapters without blubbering like a fool.
Ruthie’s death brings even more clarity for Rod. He begins to think “about how little I really knew about Ruthie’s life, and how I understood even less. 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. What I had seen and heard these last few days showed me how wrong I had been.”
The story does not end there. Very soon after Ruthie dies Rod and his wife decide to move from Philadelphia to West Feliciana, where they have experienced scenes of intense emotional power. Even someone who believes that repatriation is very often a good thing may have counseled them to let a little time pass before making such a decision.
Predictably, difficulties arise. A sometimes maddeningly analytical fellow, upon his return to West Feliciana Rod cannot help but to pick at old scabs. He is troubled by his failure to understand just how a wall arose between his sister and him in the first place. He is tortured by new evidence that Ruthie never came to accept his choices and way of life. He is consumed by a deep need for affirmation—a need that the reader suspects may be impossible ever to fulfill. Despite the author’s intentions, with respect to these issues the book ends on a note of uncertainty.
Ruthie Leming was a remarkable woman who met death with remarkable bravery. But the truth is that communities need their boundary-challengers as much as they need their boundary-protectors, their Rods as much as their Ruthies—even if the former can never occupy a central place in those communities. After all, the only effective challenges come from those who share fully in their community’s trials, sufferings, obligations, and celebrations, and can therefore speak with the credibility that membership confers. That is the importance of loyalty to place. With his return to West Feliciana, one hopes that Dreher will see that he has fully as much to offer his community as did his lovely and loving sister.
Jeremy Beer is a founding editor of the online journal Front Porch Republic and coeditor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.