As with any book at least that is at least partly essay–that being the most subjective of genres–the message or feeling which will be carried away from the book after a reader turns its final page will vary greatly. For myself, I was struck, first of all, by how very Christian the story is, and how very Christian many of its characters and their motivations are. Of course, anyone who is familiar with Dreher’s writings are aware how important his own religious struggles to his life story have been, but I was fascinated to see how much of this is truly essential to his character. As the story he tells relays it, he is a man who receives impressions, and who discerns meaning in iconic images and dreams. And it’s not just him; other people he describes are sensitive to portents, or burst forth with great sermons, or display amazing spiritual gifts. I don’t mean to suggest that Dreher’s portrayal of himself or any number of the other wonderful characters he describes in the book is simply mystical; on the contrary, there is a lot of doubt and despair in this book as well. Still, a Christian spirituality–of suffering and sacrifice, of charity and forgiveness–suffuses the whole work. If anything, I suspect Dreher would probably point to the influence of his sister’s example on his faith life, and how her simple faith, and the way her struggle with cancer threw that simple faith into a sharp relief for all to see (a constant refrain in the book is how serene and hopeful Ruthie is in the face of her devastating illness), thereby casting the thoughts of everyone who knew her–not just Dreher, but really, their whole extended family and large portions of the communities of Starhill and St. Francisville–back onto the spiritual longings which many would insist are inextricably connected (whether they are consciously recognized or not) with being human. If that seems like a profound, weighty insight to derive from the happy life and tragic death of a 42-year-old public school teacher, well, you’d have to know Ruthie.
My final word on this fine book is simply this: it is the best story about home, family, and community I have in a long, long time. When I next teach my “Simplicity and Sustainability” class (next fall), I’m going to present it alongside other memoirs likeThe Dirty Life or Better Off, not to mention classics like Walden, as a way to help my students understand that these “little ways”–ways of tradition and connection–really are available and out there, and aren’t just romantic dreams. I can’t (and wouldn’t want to!) create in my students’ hearts the kind of spiritual anguish which powers Dreher’s book, but I can, I hope, suggest to them that his realization, whatever one may think of it, is not an exclusive one. On the contrary, little towns with their own Ruthies are out there, and perhaps are, in fact, right in front of our eyes. Most of all, I appreciate very much Rod Dreher sharing with all of us, how he, at the particular moment in time, came to see what was there to see. May we all, in our own places, do a little bit of the same.
Please read the whole thing. It’s not entirely positive, but Russell’s critical remarks are so well-considered that this is the kind of review any author dreams of. Thank you, Russell; I am very much in your debt.
A word about those criticism: I wish too in retrospect I had included more of my wife Julie’s perspective, as Russell would have liked to have seen. I must say, though, that the reason that there’s not more Mike Leming in the book is because as everyone who knows him understands, Mike is a very, very quiet man. And he’s suffering terribly from his grief. It took immense inner strength and courage for him to talk to me about Ruthie as much as he did. I have the digital recording of him telling me about the day Ruthie died in his arms. I’m keeping it so his girls can have it one day, if they want it, but I replayed it to transcribe the conversation, and after that, I never, ever want to hear it again. It’s extremely raw. The man hurts. She was the love of his life. As I say in the acknowledgements of the book, I owe Mike a special debt of gratitude, because for him to revisit these memories was excruciating. Without him, there would be no book. I hope that telling the world the story of his extraordinary Ruthie will prove to have been worth what he suffered in the articulation.