The sorrows, mysteries, and beauties of the human experience are on full display in Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Subtitled A Southern Girl, a Small Town and the Secret of a Good Life, this moving and emotionally complex account of the life and death of Dreher’s younger sister, who passed away two years ago at the age of 42, touches on one resonant theme after another: deep-seated sibling conflict, growing up as an outsider, strained father-son relationships, the bonds of community, and renewal amidst tragedy.
Contained in these layers are painful lessons that will speak to many. Ultimately, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book about just that: the human condition Namely the drama of mortality and our inability to love one another like we should. Dreher writes of the bitter consequences while also honoring the better angels of our nature.
I’m tempted to say this state of affairs doesn’t ring true, but that’s not the case. It’s perfection – or something masquerading as it – that would strike a resoundingly false note. Experience exposes such lies. Ruthie’s broken love for her brother (and vice versa) is, in fact, only too human, only too recognizable – it’s the world as we know it.
Still, it stings, and deeply. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book of real pain and real tragedy. Unlike a conventional Hollywood screenplay, the story doesn’t proceed inevitably to a tidy, feel-good conclusion. Here, the stakes are high, and you can’t escape the overwhelming sense of regret and sadness. Imagine having a tortured relationship with someone you love, and then that person dies thinking you were a “fraud” of some kind.
To the benefit of this book, Dreher doesn’t obsess over the question “why”, pursuing a resolution where one can’t be found. Rather, he submits, after some consideration, to the unknown. He describes his and Ruthie’s fallen relationship as “a mystery to be lived”. As with the question of theodicy, which briefly comes up, he doubts that having an explanation would actually ease his mind.
In an age that demands answers and seeks mastery over life’s details, Dreher instead humbled himself before the wonder and uncertainty of the human experience. He didn’t find full peace by acknowledging his powerless position, but it did help him to achieve a measure of clarity. There’s a lesson here to ponder. To embrace what we can’t know isn’t a display of weakness. It’s a recognition of our limited purview.
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