The true story Rod Dreher tells in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (Grand Central, 2013) is simple and straight. And we know the end from the beginning. Rod and his little sister Ruth grow up in a small town in Louisiana. He cannot wait to leave the place. He wants the “big” – city, money, fame. She chooses the local, the little, and the quiet.
At forty, she is stricken with a very aggressive cancer. Rod watches the community come around his little sister. Her quiet and steady sowing – her “faithfulness in small things” – turns into a great harvest of kindness and generosity. She dies. Rod not only writes a book honoring his sister and her choice of the “little way,” he realizes he can and must find that way.
It has been said that a great book will read us more than we read it. This is that kind of book; at least it was for me. I too grew up in a small town. And I could not wait to leave Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon stayed. Except for an excursion through the US Army and Viet Nam, and postwar ranching jobs in Nebraska and Colorado, Vernon has been a supporting column for family and community all his life.
So this very real, organic, and probing book was a mirror for me. I saw myself in the intricate layers of father-son relationships, the shades of familial and community acceptance (and rejection), and the nuances of sibling relationships.
But, the real beauty and power of The Little Way…is the compelling twin portraits of Ruthie and St. Francisville, Louisiana. Ruthie was a very full-spirited southern woman. She always manifested a serious, even sacrificial, approach to life. But she also dropped her bra at a Hank Williams Jr. concert, swung it like a lasso, then released it to soar onto the stage (Hank draped it from the neck of his guitar).
In time, Ruthie settled. She became a teacher; “Listen, sweet baby, you can do this,” she pleads with a student. She loved her parents, her husband and daughters, her students, cooking and St. Francisville. She was a true community spark plug. Everyone in town knew and loved her. Ruthie comes right off the pages in full throbbing color.
When Ruthie got sick, the town folded around her like a right hand would grab and hold injured fingers on the left hand. This is one of the most vivid portrayals of community you will ever read.
For example, the town came together for a “Leming-Aid” concert in the park. Out of 1700 residents, a thousand people came, and they gave $43,000! People were buying ice cream cones with hundred dollar bills.
When Ruthie hit a very bad place, a text message called her daughter Hannah out of class at LSU. Hannah quickly asked a classmate to drive her home (30 miles) in her Jeep. He drove so fast that he blew the radiator. Almost immediately a couple picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. That night, as the family returned from the hospital, their house had been cleaned, the tables and counters piled high with food, and the Jeep was sitting in the driveway. The radiator had been repaired.
True to the rhythms of community, her open casket sat on the same spot in the church “where she and Mike had stood years earlier and promised to be together until death.”
Ruthie was often barefooted; it was something of a signature. When the pallbearers stepped to the rear of the funeral coach to receive her casket, they were all barefoot, with their suit pants rolled high over their ankles. They carried her “to her grave with the wet green grass of Starhill [Cemetery] between their toes.” When Ruthie’s daughters saw that, they removed their shoes too.
After the funeral, Rod and his family knew – and told some friends –they were returning to St. Francisville. In the little way of small towns, immediately someone told him about a house. He looked at it and took it.
The house was located on Fidelity Street.