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The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life Hardcover – April 9, 2013

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A Conversation with Author Rod Dreher

MapRod and Ruthie

After decades as a professional journalist, was it difficult to write such a personal story? Were there any unexpected challenges that came up during the writing process?

The chief difficulty came for me in having to recognize that the people I was writing about weren't just subjects, but people I loved and cared about, and among whom I lived. I constantly thought about balancing respect for them and their feelings with respect for the truth. Everybody loves the fun stories about Ruthie, but if I had left it at that, it wouldn't have been the whole story of Ruthie. What I didn't expect were the philosophical challenges that came up as I worked on the book. I was most struck by the nature of Ruthie's courage in facing her cancer. I learned as I reported the book that Ruthie never talked with her husband or her children about the possibility of her death--this, even though she lived for 19 months with terminal cancer. She was both accepting of death, and terrified of it. She lived with a lot of denial. In learning more about her, I came to understand that the line between heroic courage and stark terror is far more ambiguous than I thought.

Maybe the main difference between us was that while my nature was to approach the world from a critical stance, she accepted life as it was. She almost always met it with humility, fidelity, and above all, love. It is perhaps the most beautiful paradox of Ruthie Leming’s life that in showing us how to die, she showed us how to live.

To write The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, you interviewed many people from your hometown and your immediate family. What was that process like so shortly after Ruthie’s passing?

I felt as if I were trying to cross a minefield. She had been gone only three months when I started these interviews. The hardest interviews, of course, were with my family. During one interview, my father stood behind the couch in his living room talking about Ruthie, and in mid-sentence broke down into sobs, and had to grab the furniture to steady himself. It was heartbreaking to watch the man who had always been the rock of our family reduced to that, and awful too to know that I had forced him into it with my questioning. But I also knew that I couldn't flinch, and neither could he. This story had to be told. Without a doubt the most difficult interview was with Ruthie’s husband Mike, a big, quiet man who doesn't talk much, and never about his feelings. He collapsed emotionally during the interview, but pushed himself on, saying what needed saying. I've done lots of interviews in my career, including talking to 9/11 survivors. But nothing as searing as that one.

Community is a strong theme in the book. How did your idea of community evolve over the course of Ruthie's illness and how did it led to your decision to leave the "big city" for a tiny country town?

Everybody wants to belong. I grew up in a close-knit place where I belonged, until I got to high school. Suddenly I didn't. I was bullied. This happened at the same time that my father had no idea what to do with me. Paw was, and is, a good and loving man, but as I began to turn out different from what he expected--bookish, nerdy, and intellectual, instead of outdoorsy and athletic--the distance between us grew wide. Thank God for Mam, who battled with him on my behalf, so I could leave home and spend my junior and senior years in a public boarding school for gifted kids. I put my hometown behind me, and never looked back.

And then Ruthie got sick, and I saw the community in a new way. I also began to see myself in a new way. Ruthie was a healthy woman in the prime of her life, and had never smoked--yet she came down with terminal lung cancer. If that could happen to a woman like her, anything was possible. What would I do if it happened to me, or to my wife? We had friends in every place we'd lived, but we hadn't lived in any one place long enough to put down the roots that Ruthie had, not only because she spent her life here, but because she cultivated roots laid down by previous generations of our family. I came to understand that my family needed what Ruthie had, the kind of things that money can't buy. I could have at least some of it, I realized--but only if I sacrificed my own individual desire to follow my career wherever it took me.

The lesson is not that everybody should move to a small town, or should return to their hometown. The lesson is that you need your community more than you think, and that you should practice what the Benedictine monks call "stability." That is, do your best to stay in one place, put down roots, and resist the currents of our culture.

You say that returning to St. Francisville was an unexpected decision, but felt like what you had to do. What has it been like to come back to the town you grew up in and then left as a young man?

People have been great, really great. I find that some of the ordinary things that I rejected when I was young--the quiet, mostly--are things that I crave now, things that feed my soul. I love the fact that my kids can see their grandparents, and are getting to know a range of cousins they never really knew they had, because we were never able to visit long enough in the past for them to spend time with these people. The familiar used to feel oppressive; now it feels comforting.

Now you're back in St. Francisville. Do you think you will stay or will your love of city life kick back in?

Oh no, we'll stay. We want to stay. We are home.

From Booklist

Dreher and his sister, Ruthie, had always been different. While he chafed at their small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, she was deeply at home and settled. His journalism career took him to New York and Washington, D.C., while she taught school and raised a family with her childhood sweetheart, staying close to the homestead their parents had made. She also stayed close to the rituals, traditions, and spirituality that knit family and community, a closeness and spirituality that fortified Ruthie when she was diagnosed with a virulent cancer. Watching his sister’s grace and the kindness of family, friends, and neighbors, Dreher pondered what he’d been missing in his own life and how he might achieve the sense of peace and connection at the center of Ruthie’s life. He goes deeper, in search of the reason for the abiding tension in their otherwise loving relationship and for the balance in his own family life that ultimately leads him back to the hometown he once fled. Dreher offers a hard-eyed self-examination and a loving, but complex, portrait of filial love. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (April 9, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1455521914
  • ISBN-13: 978-1455521913
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (204 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Please read this book.
Jon M. Cogburn
Through the pages of this book, Ruthie will continue to inspire and make a difference in death just as she did in life.
Ruthie Leming is a wonderful story of hope, love and life.
robin heins

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Paul on June 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a complicated book, and not so much about death and bereavement as one would expect. There's a reason that William Young blurbed this book as a memoir. A memoir is understood to be autobiographical, and this book is mostly so. However there are several interesting passages, and even some laugh-out-loud funny parts made at the author's expense. If someone wishes to understand the continuing development of the author's patchwork political ideology this is a great book. Otherwise time is better spent elsewhere. Also there is a lot of religious discussion in the book which is only obliquely related to the death of the author's sister.

The first part of the book introduces Ruthie as the wildly popular, outgoing, tomboy sister of the author who, being the opposite was withdrawn, bookish and hung out with his spinster aunts and their cats. He was unpopular in school, and kids were mean to him. Reading between the lines, one can discern that he earned at least some of this mistreatment in the vein of "Harriet the Spy". Ruthie eventually became the homecoming queen and had a steady boyfriend pretty early on, getting married soon after school. The author couldn't wait to shake the dust of the town off his heels and move somewhere where people appreciated him more than his family and the benighted townsfolk.

The second part discusses Ruthie's sudden illness which a doctor from a nearby town misdiagnoses as an allergy when really it was an aggressive form of lung cancer. Of course this was devastating to their young family with three children and her parents. The author is amazed at how the town rallies around them to help the family with moral and monetary support.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By C. Hussain on May 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I was just sure that I was going to love this book and buy copies for everybody. I'd loved Rod's videos that he filmed for Andrew Sullivan and I was sure that his story was mine.

I, too, just moved back to Louisiana with my family to give my child a life of crawfish boils and LSU games, after moving way too many times in 17 years. My mom was a beloved receptionist at my grammar school for 20+ years; everyone adored her, called her an angel. When she died of breast cancer in 2005, then named the school library after her.

Unfortunately, I felt like the writing in the first half of the book was hokey. Ruthie's childhood, courtship and marriage to Mike, and motherhood were described without any negativity or conflict. I kind of felt like I was reading a modern-day "Little House on the Prairie," with Mam and Paw and barn dances. He even used the phrase "derring-do."

I figured, okay, he wrote the book for her young children, for them to remember their mama. Of course it wouldn't be negative, shouldn't be negative. I kept reading.

I cried through the entire section describing Ruthie's illness and death. What really got me were the lunch notes that were still in the girl's lunchboxes on the day she'd died.

Then Rod Dreher begins to delve more deeply into the underlying tension between him and his sister; that's when things got more realistic. I guess what I couldn't figure out is why that wasn't in the first part of the book. Ruthie's flaws do not diminish her overall character; they make her more relatable.

I did love the few pages where Rod explains why people need to set down roots, and I'd hoped for more about this topic in the book, as another reviewer has mentioned.

So I guess my reaction is mixed. The first half is disappointing, but there are many magical moments that we disconnected Americans -- who as Rod says experience the cities to which we move as "consumers" -- need to be reminded of.
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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful By j-amey on April 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had an entire afternoon's plans knocked entirely askew when I took a break to read one chapter and ended up reading the entire book. I was blessed by Rod Dreher's Starhill story of family, relationships, journeys, and faith. It touched a myriad of my identities, from child to parent, friend to sibling, and searching-for-answers to faith-in-God Christian.

"Little Way" is the story of an extraordinary ordinary woman - a daughter, wife, mother, sister, friend, and teacher, not beatified, but clearly defined - who is taken by vicious, aggressive cancer at too young an age. But it is far more than that, too. If not, it would be just another story, and this is well beyond "just another story." It reveals the spirit of true community, which is sadly too rare these days. It examines perspectives of faith, family, adolescence, aspirations, and how those things are, from one person to the next, as fingerprints, even to the point of being similar at a glance but profoundly different in reality. And it is a deeply personal journey for the author and his family; none of the bumps and questions through the journey seem to be softened to make things easier for those who traveled it. It is an authentic, true grit travelogue of that journey, not maudlin, not idealized, but hitting a harmonic chord of truth. It leaves the reader wondering how a person finds that place in himself to work up the guts to lay it all out there for his whole world and THE whole world to discover. The author examines his relationship with his younger sister very soon after her passing, but he also digs into other relationships, not the least being the one with his father.
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