No, this is not a post about Ronnie Morgan, whose irresistible bloodhound drawl you can hear on NPR’s story about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. J.L. Wall, whom I’ve been reading for years, posts an eccentric and extremely flattering comment about my book on the First Things blog. Excerpt:
I only have two short comments to add to the discussion. The first grows out of a conversation I had with a bookshop owner several weeks ago. On learning of my Kentucky roots, he observed, “I’ve always felt the South has produced the greatest American storytellers because it produces the greatest listeners in the country.” Dreher’s writing in Little Way offers readers the chance to be one of these great listeners. Even after five years as a regular reader of Dreher’s blog, I’ve never heard his voice sound so uniquely and clearly. The effect, most of the time, is the feeling that you’re sitting across a kitchen table, or on some humid front porch, listening to him tell you this story. So maybe the trick of Southern storytelling isn’t just that the author listens, but trusts the reader to listen with just as much focus and delight.
I also had the good fortune to finish Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra after a four-month hiatus before picking up Little Way. Massie’s work is at once a biography of the last Russian tsar and his family and a history of the years leading into the 1917 revolution. From the moment of Nicholas’ abdication, however, it transforms into a work almost of a kind with the story Dreher tells about his sister: the tsar and his family meet the new and ultimate crisis of their lives with a preternatural calmness, faith, and even generosity. Still, they differ from Ruthie Leming. There are no stories of this love and grace emanating outward at age five; before the abdication Nicholas and Alexandra frequently (and rightly) come across as unsuited to their positions and power.
This difference lets us see something more: that despite a host of errors and sins, a love for others, a desire to do what is necessary for those others and the Russian people (even when it leads, ultimately, to their own deaths), and a simple, unwavering faith manage to spring from them. One can imagine the figures Massie draws bending to tell their children, as Dreher shows his sister doing, “We’re not going to be mad at God. Okay?”
Read the whole thing. Massie’s Nicholas And Alexandra is one of my favorite books, and though I never would have dreamed of making the connection between the story of the doomed Romanovs and my sister Ruthie’s saga, J.L. Wall’s observation makes perfect sense to me. I came into the Massie book with no particular sympathy for the Romanovs over any other victims of Bolshevism, and the book makes it clear how in many ways they brought onto themselves their own gruesome fate. But what makes their story so luminous was how, in Massie’s telling, their suffering while in Bolshevik captivity turned the imperial family into passion-bearing saints. I’m serious about this. Whatever their many sins, the calm, dignified, and yes, holy way the Romanovs met their deaths is breathtaking to read about. It hardly bears saying that the scale of my sister’s cancer death doesn’t compare to the world-historical importance of the Romanovs’ execution, but you know, death is the great leveler. Wall helps me see why the calm and dignity with which Ruthie Leming met her own very different death — but still death! — resonates with one who admires the story of the Romanovs’ preparing for and enduring their execution.
Hey, J.L., the rocking chair on the cover of Little Way belongs to me. You are welcome to sit in it anytime and drink my bourbon. Ronnie Morgan is the one you want to listen to, though. Half the stuff he says is untrue, but all of it is hilarious and fun.