CR: Some of the most powerful images you capture describe the outpouring of support from the local community during Ruthie’s illness. You relate not only the extraordinary acts of kindness, but also the joy and laughter that were there, even in the heart of a tragedy. Do you think that is a Louisiana thing? Or a community thing? Or a Ruthie thing?
RD: All three. Seriously. Like I said, we really are different in Louisiana, at least in south Louisiana, and part of that difference is an attitude towards life that brings to mind the words of the poet W.H. Auden: “Stagger onward rejoicing.” It’s a basic stance of gratitude towards life, and pleasure in its gifts. You grow up here and you think everybody’s like that, but then you leave Louisiana and realize no, there really is an art to living that we do better than most.
But it’s also a community thing. One of the great things about living in West Feliciana is that we have a special knack for eccentricity. My late uncle, Murphy Dreher, was the master of this kind of thing. He launched the Bopotamus Festival, a community party for an animal that doesn’t exist. People around here just love to get together and have a good time, even through the tears.
It’s true, though, that this was a Ruthie thing. She inspired so much love and loyalty in her friends. Abby Temple Cochran, her closest friend, told me that she had never seen anything like the outpouring after Ruthie’s death. People wanted to be together to eat, drink, and celebrate Ruthie’s life, in a way that Abby had never before witnessed. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever heard in our day of people spending the night with a friend’s body in a church, keeping the dead friend company all through the night with song, prayer, and laughter. They even brought lawn chairs and sand from the Starhill Riviera, at Thompson Creek, where Ruthie spent so much time having fun. Ruthie would have loved every minute of it.
Isn’t that map above beautiful? That’s the endpaper from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, drawn by the wonderful English illustrator Alice Tait. The St. Francisville shop Grandmother’s Buttons has reached an exclusive deal to sell prints of Alice’s map, with half the proceeds going to a scholarship fund in Ruthie’s name. They’ll be available at the shop starting April 6, when I’ll do a signing of Little Way there (the only place anywhere you can buy a copy in advance of the April 9 publication date.