The Sadness In ‘Little Way’
Did you read the TAC books recommendation list today? It’s really good. I’m grateful to my colleagues Gracy Howard and Noah Millman for recommending my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to our readers. I was especially moved by the acute perception of Noah’s remarks, which taught me something new about the book that I, um, wrote:
Have you really not read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming yet? Really? Seriously, I’d recommend it even if Rod weren’t a friend and colleague. The subtitle is, I think, likely to mislead—this isn’t a book about “the secret of a good life” because there is no secret. This is really Dreher’s story, not his sister’s, a story of how he came to see something he never understood about her, or about the world he came from. And it’s not a story about how that world is better than any other world; it’s about how it’s good, deeply good, in a way that was only partly accessible to him growing up—and is still only partly accessible to him, even after he saw what his sister meant to his home town, and after he moved back to reconnect with that world. For all that there’s a great deal of love and hope in it, it’s at heart a sad story—and not only because a beautiful, loving woman dies, but because people, deep down, are different, and separate because of that difference. Eternally so. But if we’re lucky, and open, and determined, we can learn to love each other, and respect each other, both because of and in spite of that essential separation.
I heard some early criticism from readers that this book was more about me than my sister. My answer to that is that my task was to draw out the lessons in Ruthie’s life, lessons that can change our own lives, and make them more beautiful and true. The way I did that was to talk about how she changed my life for the better. This was the book my publisher wanted. I explained to those early critics (who were local) that everybody around here knows who Ruthie was, but I have to give national audiences a way to relate to her. Most people in this country live lives closer to my own urban life, not like Ruthie’s life in the rural South, and would not consider doing what I did in response to Ruthie’s passing. The book is a journey of discovery of the value of my sister’s way of life, and of the place where I came from, and how that epiphany changed my heart. In this way, I explained, Ruthie might change the hearts of the book’s readers.
Little Way is not, ultimately, a biography. It’s a book about family, place, home, community, and exile. Noah gets this right. It doesn’t have a conventional happy ending. But as so very many readers have told me, that’s one of the things that makes the story so valuable: because it’s how life really is, not as we wish it were. And it’s about how we deal with that.
As I’ve said to many Little Way readers, there are lessons in this book for how you might live, and the things you might say, to your family members while you can. We’re not all going to be here forever. What we do, and what we fail to do, may well matter for generations.