The mythologist Joseph Campbell discerned that the pattern of the hero’s quest is for the classic hero to be discontented in his ordinary world, hear the call of adventure, embark on a great quest and then return to the ordinary world bearing a great gift for the salvation and redemption of the ordinary folks left behind.
In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life Rod Dreher tells the story of growing up in rural Louisiana with Mam, Paw and his little sister Ruthie. Rod was a chubby, dreamer who preferred staying home to bake cookies and curl up with a good book to hitting the field and stream to go hunting and fishing with the menfolk. Freckle faced tomboy Ruthie, on the other hand, thought there was nothing better than hunting and fishing and didn’t mind skinning the deer and gutting the fish once the game was bagged and brought home. Rod and Ruthie did not get on. They were mean to each other.
The other kids at school were mean to Rod as well. He was bullied for his bookishness and was soon rejected by the few friends he had. When he got the opportunity to leave his public high school for a boarding school for academically gifted kids Rod jumped at the chance and didn’t look back. He went on to college and a successful career as a journalist while Ruthie stayed down home, married her high school sweetheart, had three kids and became a much loved middle school teacher. Then at the age of forty two she got cancer–a very nasty lung cancer. Rod tells the story of how his family watched his vibrantly alive and loving sister waste away and finally pass away from the senseless and horrific disease.
As Dreher tells the story of Ruthie he tells his own tale of the boy from the shire who goes “there and back again.” Like Dorothy, Dreher learns that there’s no place like home. The people he thought were ignorant hayseeds turn out to be good, simple folk with hearts as big as all outdoors. Seeing how the country people rally round to support a family in crisis makes Rod and his wife think again about their nomadic urbanized lifestyle, and after Ruthie’s funeral they decide to move back to Louisiana and be with the family.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is carefully researched, lovingly composed and expertly written. Dreher draws us into the story—identifying with the characters and getting the reader to exercise his tear ducts in compassion. He also gets his reader to think things through. What kind of isolated, restless lives are we leading–chasing careers, money, status and achievement instead of building solid, caring and simple communities? What kind of future are we creating in which no one will be there to help and support us in times of crisis? What kind of tomorrow are we making for our children who will be rootless and restless in an increasingly threatening world? Where are the core values that will keep us from being shiftless in a shifting world?
Dreher asks all these questions expertly, and the story of him and his family provides an excellent vehicle for posing these larger questions. Dreher asks the questions, but does not fully succeed in providing the answers. How shall we live in this fragmented and fractured society? Dreher acknowledges that one cannot go back to a golden age. Those who have left the homestead for the wider world might move back home, but they cannot un-do the education and experience they have gained.
While Dreher acknowledges the simple, homespun values of the old home town and is humble enough to change his mind and move back home, he doesn’t acknowledge that the very strengths of the hometown mentality are also its weaknesses. The community resolve can also manifest as stubbornness. The loyalty to family and community can sometimes lead to xenophobia and suspicion of the outsider. The contentedness of staying at home can also be a form of laziness and unwillingness to set out on the great adventure of learning and growing.
I enjoyed Dreher’s book and identified with his story. I left home and went to England first as an Anglican priest and then a writer and a Catholic. As I write, my own little sister is battling a fierce and aggressive cancer. Dreher’s evocative and moving story opened my heart to wounds that needed healing and relationships that needed reconciling, and the heartfelt strength of his book is that it will help many others going through a similar tribulation.
However, there was a gap in Dreher’s book. He admires the solid, no nonsense approach to life of the country people he returns to, but he also points out that there is a tough stoicism in them which allows them to step around the biggest questions of all. Dreher does the same. The really big question of suffering and the great dark is not confronted completely.
A story of heroism in the face of suffering is inspiring. Hearing about the simple goodness of an ordinary woman and the pure courage of plain folks is uplifting, but in the midst of this heroism one could have pressed further to confront the universal questions raised by the suffering of ordinary folk. Why does a loving God allow such seemingly senseless suffering? What is the point?
This is a minefield, and no place for playtime, and yet this sort of tragic story is just the place to ask these questions and attempt the answers—even if the answers are a howl of pain and an admission of defeat and the proposal of a new set of questions. While Dreher goes part way into this dark pit, he does not go far enough to ponder the really big questions with the reader. There was an opportunity to search the darkness and find the way through. The depths of the Catholic theology of suffering and the lives of the saints could have been of great assistance here.
The book’s title evokes the “little way” of St Therese, and her words in the midst of her spiritual darkness could have helped heartbroken searchers find a way through. From her deathbed Therese cries to her sisters, “Look!” Do you see the black hole where we can see nothing? Its in a similar hole that I am as far as body and soul are concerned. Ah! what darkness!” Therese was tempted not only to despair, but to suicide. Yet it was her earlier unceasing habits of faith, obedience and courage which enabled her to say in her final terrible days, “What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not had any faith, I would have committed suicide without a moment’s hesitation.”
This depth of the Catholic experience would have strengthened the book—providing an examination of the great darkness without falling back on smug theological answers, bromides or Christian clichés.
This being said, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a redemptive and rewarding book. Dreher’s own journey there and back again is an inspiring part of the tale which is understated and all the more powerful for that. It is through his seeking and moving away from St Francisville that he is able to return and recognize the goodness that was there all along.
His humility in lauding the simple goodness of the people he once despised is a reminder that the great adventure is worth the journey, and the one who travels and returns is wiser than the one who never ventured far. Dreher’s book is about his sister’s courage and humility, but it is also about his journey there and back again and is thus a moving reminder of T.S.Eliot’s words that “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”