Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
This soulful biography has the makings of an American classic. It has attributes that are likely to put it on all kinds of reading lists: family dynamics, coping with illness, grieving, religious questioning, small town life, and regional culture to name a handful. Its subtitle pushes some of these buttons: “A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.”
Rod Dreher, a prominent journalist and well-followed blogger, tells the story of his younger sister, Ruthie, who died after a harrowing bout with cancer in September 2011. He writes about the characteristics of a small Southern community, the town of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Dreher explores the town’s sense of history and the long roots that many extended families have there. It’s a place that while some leave, many stay, so that today’s family names are a part of that history. Cousins are all around, and properties connect with one another. The community where the Drehers lived and live is called Starhill. It’s a place that is so small and so connected that everyone knows or knows of just about everyone else, a place where neighbors look out for one another.
It’s a place that as a youth the author found to be conformist, narrow, and intolerant of difference. He made his escape after high school graduation, cementing his role as an outsider while building a journalism career in major urban centers. Thus he seemed an elitist – too good for the place of his birth and schoolboy years. His returns were uncomfortable.
Ruthie, however, grew to become the fairest flower of the community. Though she had a playful, fun- loving side, her concerns were always seriously and strongly tied to the place – to her family and her community. Her marriage to Mike Leming was rock solid. Her position in the town was assured by her parents’ reputation for congeniality and generosity. Invariably supportive of her many friends, Ruthie knew how to make others feel welcome and important. Her caring nature inspired others. Her achievements as a public school teacher were astounding: she always found a way of breaking through to children lacking confidence or motivation. She changed lives.
She didn’t know another way to be. Ruthie Dreher Leming understood fully, in her soul, her place in God’s plan. She didn’t question it, she reveled in it. Helping others made her glow.
Though the book is a full-length portrait, its focus is the short period that followed Ruthie’s cancer diagnosis, which is a turning point in Rod Dreher’s understanding of his origins and of himself. It brings him back into the family orbit, and it leads to some unexpected decisions and revelations.
The news of Ruthie’s illness, briefly hidden, rallies the community. Because she had been an exemplar of sacrifice and care, her struggle brings the reward of abundant support. This is not merely payback or guilt at work. Ruthie’s life, an endless stream of encouraging words and actions, had tapped into the best that small town life has to offer and amplified it. Those whose lives she touched seemed to be ennobled by the opportunity to bring comfort to Ruthie and her family.
The author found in his sister’s final months an unusual opportunity to answer questions for himself and to bring a remarkable life to public view. He measures his life up until that time as in sharp contrast to that of his sister and his parents. By interviewing family friends, Ruthie’s co-workers, and her students, Dreher comes to understand and value not only his sister, but also the kind of community that is so quickly vanishing:
“The love that had sustained Ruthie through her cancer, and that now surrounded and upheld her family, came from somewhere. Like Ruthie, my mother and father had cultivated it, in this little patch of ground, all their lives. They had no grand gestures of philanthropy or goodness to their name, but rather they were always faithful in small things.”
The small things add up. Ruthie’s “little way” of life actually had great force and magnitude.
Rooted in compassion and faith, but skirting the pitfalls of sentimentality and preachiness, Rod Dreher fashions a stunning and eloquent prose elegy for his remarkable sister and, perhaps, for the kind of community she so magnificently represents.
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