My friend Ed Brenegar, a Presbyterian pastor whom I met and with whom I spent a wonderful evening in Asheville after my reading there, offers his thoughts after reading The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. Excerpt:
Having spent some time with Rod as he came to Asheville on his
book tour, I identify with how family relationships are sometimes much more difficult than our social and professional relationships. In effect, there was only an upside in believing that her students could become anything that they set their mind to doing. But there is conflict within a family when the family traditions are not sufficient to hold some members at home. I see this attachment to the past, which is what it is, as a way many people refuse to address the realities of the contemporary world, and as a result end up denying not only their responsibility to a wider world, but also their potential for making a difference that matters.
For me this relationship between Rod and Ruthie is the most interesting in the book, and worth reading by families so that conversation about expectations can be had.
We also see that small town life, for all its communal closeness, is not idyllic. There is a tendency not to be able to see beyond one’s own self-interest and that that of one’s clan. Urban and suburban communities can be just as self-interested, just as easily denying an obligation to care for those who are less well off.
However, what distinguishes this story is the character of Ruthie Leming. For all her narrowness about her small town, she was a woman of extraordinary love and caring for people beyond her family. In fact, it is quite evident that her impact is global and not just local because of the care she gave to her students. It is people like Ruthie who make communities worth living in. The question is why are there not more like her. I hope the book inspires people waiting for something to move them into action to become more like Ruthie.
Small towns have advantages that big city life has a much more difficult time providing. Namely the closeness of family and friends who meld into one’s family in ways that a cosmopolitan existence cannot afford. The ease that people move in and out of the Leming household during and after her death from cancer; how the community rallies to raise money for Ruthie’s hospital bills through a concert, and how the spirit of Ruthie served as a bond for community that made life in their little community richer, are pictures of life in rural communities.
Rod tells his own story as a contrast to Ruthie’s. He is like many people I know who are very cosmopolitan in their tastes. They find it easy to move between various cultures, finding commonality with people from all points on the globe. Yet, as his sister goes through her bout with cancer, the pull of family and Louisiana eventually uproots the Dreher family from their life in Philadelphia as they move home to Starhill.
Family and place are two of the three themes that make this book a thought-provoking, engrossing read. However, it is the question of the communal and familial nature of death and dying that is played out in Ruthie’s illness which may be the most important insight that Dreher provides.
Read on to see what Ed means.