An epigraph quoting St. Therese of Lisieux and the book’s title clearly evoke that saint’s “little way”—a commitment to “seeking holiness of life in the ordinary and the everyday.” Honoring Ruthie’s “little way” of living out her faith by being a hospitable, gracious mother, wife, daughter, and neighbor—allowing her dire illness to deepen her faith and further cement her role as a vehicle of grace for others—is the book’s overarching message. The cosmopolitan Rod, in fact, ultimately decides to move back to his hometown after Ruthie dies, to commit himself more deeply to loving his own family and neighbors in the hometown he was once so desperate to leave.
What saves Dreher’s book from being an oversentimental tribute to a sister perfected by suffering is his honesty about his and his family’s complexities and foibles. Ruthie was radically accepting of all circumstances (including her illness, about which she chose to know nothing beyond what her doctors told her, to avoid losing hope) and people—except Rod, whom she saw as pretentious. Rod’s parents, particularly his father, also judged his ambition harshly. Dreher includes a few vignettes in which these accusations of pretentiousness clearly have some basis in fact. The characters in this family drama are not caricatures; they are real people, and as in all families, they can be infuriating.
Dreher’s prose is solid and highly descriptive. Occasionally, he seems to confuse unnecessary detail with poetic evocation of place; I skipped ahead more than once, eager to get on with the story rather than get bogged down in overabundant inclusion of names, places, and tangential vignettes.
I am also, frankly, worried about how his family is receiving this book. In the acknowledgments, Dreher says he began interviewing family members for the book a few months after Ruthie died; I assume they gave the project their approval. But a striking scene in the book reveals a family reluctant to voice their discomfort outright.
Rod and his wife Julie, visiting home some time before Ruthie’s illness, spent the better part of a day preparing a French bouillabaisse for dinner. When they sat down to eat, his parents and Ruthie refused to partake. Eventually, Rod’s father asked for a coffee cup so he could have a small serving, while Ruthie made a pointed comment about a local woman’s flair for country cooking. Rod realized they all saw his culinary masterpiece as an attempt to impress them with his worldly ways and an insult to their simple meals. This drama unfolded despite the fact that Rod asked ahead of time if they would like to have bouillabaisse for dinner, and the family was fully aware of him and Julie making their enthusiastic preparations. I’m not sure I trust this family to reveal misgivings about Dreher’s book, especially as it includes unflattering stories such as this one. For Dreher’s sake, I hope that in the intervening years, his parents have learned something about both their son and the need to be honest about one’s misgivings up front.