Chicago-based writer Kevin Nance, reviewing The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming in USA Today, observes:
The reaction of readers to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, the thoughtful and thought-provoking new memoir by Rod Dreher, probably will depend on how far they live from where they grew up, and whether they regret or embrace that closeness or distance.
He’s definitely onto something here. Over and over, as I have spoken with early readers of the book, I observe the same thing: many, many people’s reaction to the narrative depend on their own family’s circumstances, and how they’ve dealt with their own childhoods in their minds. As I make clear in my book, I didn’t return home as a prodigal son, sorry for having left. I’m glad I left … but glad I returned, too. The reader will, I think, feel the weight of that return, and why the way home wasn’t strewn with primroses. Nance picks up on a 1998 moment that was for me was a defining moment of my life with Ruthie and my family:
In the book’s most striking passage, Dreher describes a Christmas visit to St. Francisville in which he and his new wife, Julie, spent all day making a bouillabaisse — a French-style seafood soup —for a family dinner with Ruthie and their parents, and she wouldn’t touch it. Instead, Ruthie begins talking about a woman she had run into recently. “She’s a good cook,” she says. “A good country cook.”
In her relations with me — but as far as I could tell, only with me, nobody else — Ruthie represented the kind of thing that makes my sort of person leave small towns. But as the book makes abundantly clear, Ruthie also embodied what is best about small-town life, and she brought that out in others. In his review, Nance suggests that there might be something bad about my homecoming:
Some readers may view Dreher as having surrendered, in the end, to a kind of emotional pressure, even blackmail, with nostalgia at its core. Others will feel he romanticizes small-town life, embodied on the book’s jacket by a rocking chair on a porch, in a way that implicitly criticizes the choices of those who left those porches for the streets and skylines of cities.
Well, maybe some readers may view things this way, but I’m not sure how they’ll get that from my book. Nobody pressured me to come home, and I don’t think I’m nostalgic about things. I wrote very clearly in the book about the struggles I’ve had since coming home. You can’t leave under the circumstances I left under, stay away for nearly three decades, have an emotionally complicated relationship with your father and your sister, and come home to expect everything to bed rosy. And yet, as I hope I made clear in the book, I chose to come home freely, out of love, not out of guilt or duty, because in the light of my sister’s death, I came to see the hidden treasure of the place I left behind.
I wonder too about the “implicitly criticizes” stuff. I might be wrong, but I think it’s pretty obvious in the book that some people — like Ruthie’s student Shannon — had to leave, and can’t come back because what they left is too broken to fix, or to live with. Thank God those people had a way out! Thank God I did, when I did. But it’s not wrong to reconsider why you left, and whether or not you should come back, even if you conclude that it’s not something you can or should do. As I write in Little Way:
Not everyone is meant to stay — or to stay away — forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given — and to give each other grace.
I get the impression that the reviewer doesn’t agree with my decision to return home, but I appreciate the way he concluded his review:
But he communicates these thoughts and feelings with simplicity, clarity and humility, and he leaves us to draw our own conclusions. We can’t expect any more than that.
That’s fair, and that’s what I hope readers take away from this book. I’m not telling everybody to go back home to their small towns. Many readers won’t come from places like that, or won’t be able to return even if they wanted to. What I hope to do is to tell a story of real people, why I left these people, and why I came back — and what my big-hearted, bull-headed, wholly beloved sister had to do with exile and return. It’s a complex story. There are no easy answers. What you take out of Little Way will depend in large part on what you bring to it. I hope every reader, wherever he or she lives, will conclude that it’s more important than they might think to build a community, and love that community.