By Conor Dugan
The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, is a heartbreaking and beautiful book. The Little Way is Rod Dreher’s brilliant memoir of his sister’s terrible fight with lung cancer and ultimate death, the way her small Louisiana town, St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, rallied round her and her family, and how this ultimately moved Rod to return to the place of his birth and youth. Dreher’s wonderful writing and voice weave together a coherent and compelling narrative of vocation, place, family, and fidelity.
The central characters in this narrative are Ruthie Lemming, Dreher’s younger sister, who married her high school sweetheart and, but for a few years away at LSU, remained in St. Francisville, and Rod who yearned to escape from the small town where he was born. Lemming is an inspiring teacher and dutiful mother, who lives only a “long stone’s throw” from her parents, Mam and Paw Dreher. Rod, in an act emblematic of our mobile, meritocratic culture, leaves St. Francisville and moves from place to place as he climbs the ladder of journalistic success. Lemming remains faithful to her family’s Methodist faith; Dreher loses his and then, many years after a visit to Chartres and the experience of its beauty, is led back to God, first as a Catholic and later as an Orthodox Christian. In the midst of Dreher’s career climb there are visits home – often fraught. Then, in the prime of her life, Ruthie is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. This would be an earth-shattering event for anyone. But, in the case, of Ruthie, it has cosmic dimensions.