Review: Rod Dreher's memoir recounts his sister's death from cancer

Published April 3, 2013

Louisiana exerts the biggest tug on the hearts of its children, if you believe the U.S. Census. Close to 80 percent of people born there stay there, more than in any other state, according to 2010 numbers.

I can personally vouch for that; Louisiana is the state where I was born. Whenever I get together with fellow Louisiana expats, we inevitably turn to our explanations — our excuses, really — for why we haven't gone home. Then we lament: We miss the food. We miss the music. We miss family.

Conservative political blogger Rod Dreher went home. He and I went to the same elite high school, the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches, La. The school attracted a certain type: high-achieving kids from small towns who grow up to be adults with bright careers — careers that tend to take them off to life in the big city.

After working as a journalist in New York, Dallas and Philadelphia, Dreher is back home in St. Francisville, population 1,700, about an hour north of Baton Rouge. The path that circled him back home, though, is rooted in sorrow. He traces it in his gripping new memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.

Ruthie Leming was Rod's sister. Diagnosed in 2010 with a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer (she didn't smoke), Leming was exactly the type of person we like to think will only have good things happen to her. She married her high school sweetheart, became a schoolteacher who inspired students and doted on her three little girls. She was joyous, and she loved life. Her death is momentous enough to spur Dreher to move his wife and three children back to Louisiana.

This could have been a maudlin, phony story, but much to Dreher's credit, it certainly doesn't feel that way. Instead, his memoir is surprisingly personal and, at times, painfully honest. Though he says his sister was probably a saint, he doesn't shy from showing her as a real person with faults and failings. After moving his own family back to town, he has to come to terms with the fact that though his sister loved him, she didn't seem to like him. His young nieces remember him as the man their mama complained about, for his perceived snootiness and big-shot city ways.

Dreher's previous book was the nonfiction political book Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. That 2006 work was a critique of the modern Republican Party and an affirmative case for communitarian principles. Big Business was out; homeschooling, organic farming and shopping local were in. Back then, Dreher opined that "the point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper."

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming feels like his struggle to live out the principles he articulated years previously. Still, the book avoids overt discussions of political ideology or hot-button issues to focus on personal relationships and life as it's actually lived.

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As the book moves toward its conclusion, Dreher wisely avoids presenting small-town living as a new utopia. Instead, he joins in a long tradition of American writers who acknowledge the sometimes ugly contradictions of small town life. (Edgar Lee Masters' 1916 classic Spoon River Anthology is the best example of the genre.) Yes, small towns can nurture familial warmth and loving connections, but they also provide fertile ground for pointless feuds and pettiness. One of the most unexpected moments of the book is when Dreher's father, now old, reveals his own quiet regrets about staying in one place his whole life.

"There has to be balance," Dreher concludes. "Not everyone is meant to stay — or to stay away — forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given — and to give each other grace."

Angie Drobnic Holan is deputy editor of PolitiFact, the national politics fact-checking website, and a native of Patterson, La., population 6,000.