Strong Stuff in ‘Little Way’
Well, this is a wonderful surprise in the Sunday paper: Danny Heitman, my old friend and former colleague at the Baton Rouge Advocate, has written an extremely kind column about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. Excerpt:
A woman once said of the writer Henry James that she had never met a man “so assailed by the perceptions.” Rod has a similar gift for feeling the world and expressing it on the page.
He recalls that the summer of his childhood “smelled like neat’s-foot oil, light beer in a can (you’d sneak a sip when your dad asked you to fetch him a fresh one out of the cooler), Off! mosquito repellent, the decaying wood of … bleachers, and the smoke from our folks’ Marlboro Reds.”
Such passages reminded me of James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their power to evoke this region’s hottest months.
I’m abashed by the flattering comparisons, but I’m tickled by Danny’s picking up on my description of what summertime in the ballpark in the 1970s was like in our town. Several people who grew up here in the same era, and who have read the book, have remarked to me on how true to their own memories those descriptions were. And a friend who grew up in a small town in Alabama said this was exactly what summer was like for him as a child there in the 1980s. The heat. The heat. The heat.
I’m also pleased by how it seems nearly everyone who reads Little Way and who feels moved to comment on it has a strong reaction (fortunately, they’re positive). Check out the Amazon reviews. This afternoon, a young man who grew up in my town but who now lives in Chicago wrote on Facebook:
What an amazing book! A book by Rod Dreher about his sister’s heroic and awe inspiring fight with cancer. Both Rod, Ruthie, and her family are from my small home town. A place I refer often as God’s Country. It took me less than 48 hrs to read it. I have never read another book that ever came close to having such a huge impact on me as this book did. I am very private about my Faith and have never typed anything of it on Fb or anywhere else but last night after I finished reading at 1130 pm I Prayed harder than I have in a very long time.
Forgive me if citing that comes off as self-congratulation; I don’t mean for it to. What I want to know from you who have read the book is why it provokes such strong reactions.
I’ll say up front that I don’t believe it’s the writing, but rather the things that Ruthie did and said during her cancer struggle, and that the people of the town did and said in reaction to it all. I’ve been living with the story for so long, both in real life and then in writing about it, that it has lost a lot of its power with me, simply because of familiarity. If I had anything to do with the book’s effect, it was perhaps in delving into the emotional, and at times philosophical, complexity of the story. But mostly, I’m guessing, it’s the power of simple faith, courage, and basic human goodness on display. People like to think that sort of thing exists, but they often doubt it really does. And then they see it, and realize the good that ordinary people are capable of, and it makes them think, maybe, the good that they themselves are capable of. I remember having lots of moments like that living in New York City the autumn of 2001, after 9/11. I rounded the corner in Brooklyn Heights one day and saw a group of local Jehovah’s Witnesses scrubbing a badly battered fire truck from the local firehouse; it had been pulled out of the rubble of the Twin Towers and dragged back across the river. The JWs were cleaning it up for the neighborhood firefighters. It was a beautiful thing. That happened a lot in New York that fall.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember that Ruthie’s husband Mike came home from picking up a prescription from Ruthie at the town pharmacy in that first week after diagnosis, and ran into a fellow who said that he’s not a praying man, but hearing the news of Ruthie caused him to pray twice already that week. There’s just something about this story — both when it happened, and now reading about it on paper — that stops people cold and makes them reflect on the deeper things in life. I’m getting this stuff every day in my in-box.
Of course, if people read it and don’t feel strongly about it, they’re probably not bothering to write. But for you readers who did react strongly to it, I’m curious as to what elements of the story brought out that reaction in you.