This could have been a maudlin, phony story, but much to Dreher’s credit, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Instead, his memoir is surprisingly personal and, at times, painfully honest. Though he says his sister was probably a saint, he doesn’t shy from showing her as a real person with faults and failings. After moving his own family back to town, he has to come to terms with the fact that though his sister loved him, she didn’t seem to like him. His young nieces remember him as the man their mama complained about, for his perceived snootiness and big-shot city ways.
… As the book moves toward its conclusion, Dreher wisely avoids presenting small-town living as a new utopia. Instead, he joins in a long tradition of American writers who acknowledge the sometimes ugly contradictions of small town life. (Edgar Lee Masters’ 1916 classic Spoon River Anthology is the best example of the genre.) Yes, small towns can nurture familial warmth and loving connections, but they also provide fertile ground for pointless feuds and pettiness. One of the most unexpected moments of the book is when Dreher’s father, now old, reveals his own quiet regrets about staying in one place his whole life.
Of course the main thrust of the book is that I found peace moving back here. I felt it important, though, to be as honest as I could about the town as I found it, my family as I found it, and my own limitations and faults. It was so gratifying to me when my dad called me after he finished the book and said, “You told it just like it was.” The narrative is not entirely complimentary to him at times, because I wanted to be honest about the struggles he and I had. That he praised it for its truth-telling meant the world to me. Some of Ruthie’s closest friends, the people who knew her best, have told me the same thing. They set a good example, though, especially Abby Temple Cochran, Ruthie’s best friend, who loved and respected Ruthie Leming too much to falsify her life, or to ignore her faults. Ruthie was a saint, I think, but she was by no means a plaster saint.
It was deeply important to me that I tell the truth of this story as best as I could, because the truth — messy and painful as it sometimes is — is the only thing that truly honors the goodness and beauty of my sister’s life, and life in our town. As my friend the literature professor and critic Alan Jacobs wrote about Little Way:
Rod Dreher tells a tale of dear things lost and dear things restored, but also, and unflinchingly, confronts some harder truths about old wounds that never fully heal and old misunderstandings that won’t quite go away. This is a book that strives for truth more than beauty — and is all the more beautiful for it.
I hope so. A lot of early readers tell me that this book is very, very emotional, and I believe them. How can it not be, given the subject matter? But I worked hard to keep it from being kitsch, and reviews like Drobnic Halan’s tell me that I succeeded. Truth to tell, I think the fact that I wrote the book so soon after she died worked to the narrative’s advantage in this way. People still had the memories of Ruthie as she really was, not a sanitized, artificially sweetened “Saint Ruthie,” which is the kind of thing that often happens with the passage of time after a beloved person’s death.