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Books and Culture

Matthew Hennessey
Little Platoons
Rod Dreher’s homage to his sister raises profound questions about family and modern life.
24 May 2013

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, by Rod Dreher (Grand Central Publishing, 288 pp., $25.99)

Family is hard. That’s the message at the heart of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher’s book about his sister’s death from lung cancer at 43 and his subsequent decision to return to his (and Ruthie’s) hometown in rural Louisiana. In the hands of a less talented writer, this might have been only a grief-fueled beatification of a life taken too soon. Dreher’s searching book is much more than that.

I found myself choking back sobs as I read about Ruthie’s illness and her struggle to survive. My mother died of cancer and, as with Dreher and Ruthie, an invisible wall had gone up between us in the years before her death. Like Dreher, I left my hometown because I thought it too small to hold my dreams. Like Dreher, I realized, too late, that when things go wrong there is no substitute for family.

This is an important book, shot through with Dreher’s penetrating intellect and cultural commentary. Some reviewers have interpreted Dreher’s relocation as an embrace of small-town, conservative values. But The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is also extraordinary because it does something that few books even try to attempt: it offers a plausible way out of the postmodern alienation and ironic posturing that has for too long informed my generation’s warped notions of the good life.

Raised on pop culture and relativism, convinced we could create sustainable worlds from scratch, trapped in a permanent adolescence, we find ourselves now at mid-life, with children of our own, with jobs and responsibilities, but with no frame of reference for what’s true or real or good. Who are we, we wonder? How did we end up in an America that seems smaller than the one we grew up in? Why does the culture feel so inauthentic? Where does our bitterness and sarcasm come from? Why are we lonely so much of the time?

Dreher’s book offers answers, though not easy or comforting ones. In the first place, there are virtues—now largely ignored—in staying put. We lead peripatetic lives, hopping from job to job and place to place, chasing the best offer or the best school district or the best commute. Before his sister’s death, Dreher followed a career that took him on an exciting but exhausting circuit through the elite cultural institutions of Washington, D.C., Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. At each stop, he built networks of trusted friends and colleagues. But he eventually realized that these were not the ties that could support him in an acute crisis such as the one that befell his sister.

For that, you need family. For that, you need true community—the kind that enters your house and cleans it for you when you’ve gone to the hospital; that cooks for your kids when you’re too sick to do it yourself; that tracks down the car you abandoned on the highway because the radiator blew out while you were rushing home to be with your dying mother; that fixes the radiator and parks the car back in your driveway, anonymously; that surrounds you in your grief and refuses to let you be engulfed by it.

Dreher is careful to avoid what he calls “communitarian romanticism.” He acknowledges that his hometown, like many small towns, is plagued by drugs, crime, personal pettiness, and a general lack of economic opportunity. But these shortcomings pale in comparison with the good nature of its people and the affection they show his family. Anyone who thinks religion is the trouble with modern conservatism will find The Little Way of Ruthie Leming hard going. Secular humanists and atheistic libertarians take heed: this is a God-soaked book. Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, is unabashed in his faith.

But if Dreher’s Christianity is inseparable from his conservatism, so, too, is his conviction that family—difficult and complicated as it is—remains society’s indispensable institution. Families make communities and communities make a nation. This is less like ideology, Dreher tells us, than arithmetic.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is, in part, a cautionary tale: make peace with your family before it’s too late. Dreher understands the stakes and appreciates just how close his family came to total disaster. “Cancer is a family illness,” he writes, and without Ruthie’s death from it, Dreher may have remained estranged from his mother and father, alienated from his hometown, and in a quiet war with himself. Had Ruthie lived, he may never have summoned the courage to return to Louisiana. Had Ruthie not gotten sick, he may have continued to wander, putting mistaken faith in his ability to turn any old house into a home.

Family might be hard, but going it alone is almost impossible.

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