The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

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