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A Grief Observed

by David French

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

What I felt when I picked up Rod Dreher’s new book was, simply, dread. From the dust jacket, I knew it dealt with his sister’s untimely death from cancer. If it was written well, it would rip apart my old wounds — wounds inflicted by seeing too much premature death in too short a time. If it wasn’t, I had another kind of dread — that of voyeuristically reading about someone else’s pain against the backdrop of an excessively idealized small southern town.

There is a genre of conservative writing and thought that takes rural America and elevates it, drains it of the brokenness that plagues the rest of our nation, and turns it into an unrecognizable Disneyland of simple folks just doin’ good. But I know better. I grew up in a small southern town, and — like Dreher — have returned to the South after years of northeastern wanderings, moving from New York to upstate New York and then to Philadelphia before settling in my family’s longtime home town of Columbia, Tenn. (perhaps better known as the “Mule Capital of the World”). I love my town, and the people in it, but they are people, and people are fallen.

Dreher’s book begins with the story of his childhood in Louisiana. His little sister, Ruthie, loved him, but was different from the start. Rod was bookish, intellectual, and questioning. Ruthie loved the outdoors, the rural life, and the town where they lived. Rod left as soon as he had the chance, at age 16, to go to boarding school. Ruthie stayed for the rest of her life.

The writing is both intimate and distant. Dreher’s subject is people he knows better than anyone else, but he steps back from them stylistically and intellectually. The book reads a bit like an authorized, insider biography of a celebrity or political leader, respectful as it identifies and evaluates formative events — but it is also painfully honest.

Rod left home, but he also kept looking back, often desperate to reconcile with a father who seemed to scorn his choices. He also looked back to his sister, who made a life as a teacher and seemed to open her heart and life to everyone but her brother. His family felt that Rod was rejecting them; Rod felt rejected and misunderstood by his family.

Ruthie, after all, saw Rod’s lifestyle as mystifying and strange. She was a public-school teacher; Rod and his wife homeschooled. She lived in one place and had one job; he couldn’t stay in a city for long and hopped from job to job. In one painful vignette, she even refused to eat a French meal Rod and his wife had prepared, believing it was a symbolic rejection of their simpler southern way.

Then Ruthie was diagnosed with cancer.

In the Hallmark version of this story, the cancer would claim Ruthie’s life, but it would also bring a family together in a spasm of forgiveness and healthy perspective. Death would come, but so would closure, and healing. But Dreher doesn’t shrink from the sometimes terrible realities. Yes, there is healing and forgiveness, but there is also stubbornness and denial. Some wounds aren’t healed, and are even ripped open further amidst the unimaginable stress of a terminal-cancer diagnosis.

It turns out that a person with cancer is still a person, and a family rallying to support a stricken sister, wife, mother, and daughter is still a family. Ultimately, this is what makes Dreher’s book so powerful. As Ruthie nears the end of her life, the prose is compassionate but remorseless. You know what’s coming, you see the family make mistakes, and you know there’s no remedy. When a daughter decides to distance herself from her mother in the final weeks of her mother’s life, you know it won’t end well.

As Ruthie dies, and as Rod sees not just the outpouring of love from friends and neighbors but also the outpouring of grief (a grief that you’ll feel yourself; I read those pages on a flight from Boston to Nashville and had to close the book while I composed myself), he decides to come home.

These are the most difficult passages of the book. Ruthie’s loss tore a gaping hole in the lives of her family but also in an entire community. Such voids aren’t left by people who live just in a “little way,” but only by those who live in a noble, honorable, and loving way.

As an imperfect family and an imperfect community cling to each other, Dreher comes to a convicting conclusion:

During the decade leading up to Ruthie’s death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, short on deeds. . . . My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan state and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.

  The one thing that none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.

And so, he moves back to his tiny Louisiana home town.

But this is no fairy tale, and there is no “happily ever after.” Back home, the challenges keep mounting, as he discovers Ruthie disliked his lifestyle even more than he knew. Each page contains yet another surprising and disturbing revelation. Though all is not well back at home, he feels called to “accept the limitations of a place, in humility.”

And this is where the book’s deeper social significance lies. It seems that we now live in the era of “lean in”: As the underclass fragments, and families collapse, the elite strains to achieve — leaning into careers, rejecting limitations, and often scorning those who don’t jump into the global marketplace with both feet. Live your dream, they say, as hard as you can, as fast as you can, as long as you can. But Dreher’s book is about something completely different: not leaning in, but leaning on, creating and sustaining communities where imperfect people lean on one another as they struggle together through sickness, through grief, and even through conflict. We lean on and are leaned upon, ready to jettison ambition in order to serve and to sustain.

The book inspires, moves, and convicts. Dreher introduces readers to his patron saint, Benedict of Nursia. Benedict took a vow of “stability,” asking his monks to settle down, to embrace “the discipline of place and community.” But this vow often conflicts with the goal of ambition, and the desire to exercise influence.

Dreher is too smart and wise to draw rigid boxes, to declare that we should all stay in small communities near home. But he does remind us that amidst the avalanche of contemporary hand-wringing about values, ideas, and communities, someone has to actually live those values. Someone has to walk the talk. And Ruthie walked.

When you lose someone close to you, there is often a desperate desire to tell that person’s story — not just to preserve memories but also to honor her and to sustain the meaning of her life. In this book, Dreher has done much more than honor his sister or preserve her memory. He’s shown us a way — perhaps the best way — to build our culture and to strengthen our families.

Simply put: Be there — for your family, your friends, and your community. Live not to achieve, but to serve. There is, of course, no single way to “lean on” rather than “lean in,” but the very decision to do so should transform the focus and object of our lives. But lean on (and be leaned upon) with eyes wide open, not with expectations of creating utopia but instead with the realization that unless millions of us choose the “little way,” there will be no good way left.

Man is still fallen, small towns struggle much as big towns, and — absent self-sacrifice — we’d struggle even more. It’s not policy that redeems a culture, but character and commitment, lived in towns large and small, in the way of Ruthie and her loving brother, Rod.

– Mr. French is a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and a co-author (along with his wife, Nancy) of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.

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