A Feature Review of
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life
Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar.
In November 1995, my then-boyfriend’s, now-husband’s brother died suddenly. A few weeks later, I preached a sermon at my little coffee-house church about how Jimmy’s death made me impatient with all of the outward-focused ministries for which my church (part of the venerable Washington, DC-based Church of the Saviour) was known. People affiliated with my church were doing wonderful things for DC’s poorest citizens—day care centers and GED prep and long-term supportive housing for those with HIV/AIDS. Good stuff.
But, I admitted, loving Daniel as he mourned his brother drew my focus a bit closer to home. I realized that we Christians are called not simply to do big things for Jesus “out there” in the world, but also to offer sacrificial love—Christ-like love—in our homes and families and friendships, where the needs can be just as big and desperate as those on our city streets or in undeveloped overseas locales.
This dynamic—my being pulled inward, toward intimate relationships while communing with Christians pushing themselves and others outward, toward the world’s sore spots—has continued to complicate my faith journey. I struggled then with the knowledge that God was calling me to have a baby, while many of my brothers and sisters believed God was calling them to live in rough inner-city neighborhoods, travel to impoverished nations, or give up health insurance in solidarity with uninsured citizens. I struggle now with how my energy and attention are largely consumed by the small chaos of motherhood, combined with the solitary work of writing, even as I am well aware of the many places “out there” so in need of care.
At the heart of Rod Dreher’s new memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (Grand Central 2013), lies this tension between a Christian life focused on the quotidian tasks of home, family, and community, and a Christian life focused on the wider world of ideas and the philosophical, practical, and religious complexities of our ever-more-connected planet. Dreher, an Orthodox Christian and popular blogger, has crafted a fine family memoir around his sister Ruthie’s diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer in early 2010, from which she died at age 42 in September 2011.
From childhood, he and Ruthie embodied the tension between staying put and striking out. Rod* was always bookish and inquisitive, preferring to stay indoors reading or watching TV, while Ruthie was most happy by her daddy’s side, helping out on their plot of land in rural Louisiana or fishing in their pond.
These innate differences led to radically different life choices—Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, became a school teacher, and raised three daughters in a house built on her parents’ land. Rod left home as soon as he could, first attending boarding school, then moving to Washington, D.C. after college. Over the next decade-plus, as he married and had three children, he also lived in Dallas and Philadelphia.
* Because of the intimate story Dreher tells, it seems wrong to call Ruthie by anything other than her first name. It also seems wrong to call her by her first name and him by his last. So when I am recounting scenes from Dreher’s story, I refer to both him and her by their first names. When I am discussing Dreher as an author, I refer to him by his last name.