Rod Dreher’s excellent book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming has prompted an interesting discussion on localism and its limits. In response to Jeremy Beer’s TAC review of the book, Front Porch Republic author Russell Arben Fox wrote Monday of parallels between Little Way and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel with similar community themes.

Beer’s review suggested “communities need their boundary-challengers as much as they need their boundary-protectors, their Rods as much as their Ruthies.” He saw Ruthie’s faithfulness to place and Rod’s faithfulness to “the good, the true, and the beautiful” as two essential goods.

But Fox argues that “We all are, or at least can be and arguably should be, homesick: or, to express the psychological state I have in mind more positively, always attendant to and seeking for the kind of purposive fulfillment which occurs when our circumstances match our identity, our calling.” Does that necessitate a constant fixation with place? Not necessarily – Fox acknowledges that such a “calling” is both complicated and mysterious. He points to scenes from Gilead to demonstrate this. Although he advocates for a vocation limited to place and circumstance, he does not deny that there is a degree of specificity involved in each person’s story. He continues:

“…Many have argued that the traditions which attachments incubate in us are the essential building blocks of judgment, cognition, and identity: that is, of being human in the fullest sense, being engaged in our lives purposively. But the complicating idea of Dreher’s story is that showing fidelity to, or giving respect to, those purposes and building blocks isn’t necessarily the same as being defined by them. One can (and, at least in the modern United States, many, maybe even most people do) embody their attachment to a tradition by working out a purpose informed by a rejection of that community or place or family which shaped them. A contrarian or dissident or unconventional nature and calling still is–or still may be, assuming it does not take a destructive or nihilistic turn–one which remembers within itself a shaping, a tradition, which began with certain attachments, even if the customary implications of those attachments are now rejected.”

These “contrarians,” or “boundary-challengers” as Beer put it, have a purpose and calling, as well. Even if they move away from their place of origin, they can show a different fidelity or allegiance, tied to the principles and mores of their heritage. The “cosmopolitan” world often tries to shake such allegiances out of the individual, labeling them as “intolerant” or “backward.” The boundary-challenger must have courage to stand up for St. Francisville or Gilead in the face of New York City or Washington, D.C. elites. But in a nation where little towns are most often forgotten, perhaps boundary-challengers are needed more than ever before.

As Rod himself said in Little Way,

“There has to be balance. Not everyone is meant to stay – or to stay away – forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsbility, 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.”