Don’t set this book aside too soon—that is, if you set it aside at all. While it begins pretty typically as a chatty family memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming soon deepens into the story and life of a small-town Louisiana family. More than that, it rings true and lives up to the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux after which it plainly takes its heart.
Ruthie Leming—sister of the columnist and cultural critic, Rod Dreher—is an ebullient, unabashedly small-town girl with an unrestrained love for neighbors and strangers alike. While Dreher can’t wait to get out of his hometown of St. Francisville, LA, Ruthie marries her high school sweetheart and becomes a middle school teacher, raising three girls along the way. She is a beloved member of the community, an empathetic and loyal friend, a defender of the poor, and the sort of teacher that changes lives.
At forty, Ruthie is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and Dreher chronicles her astonishing response to her fatal diagnosis. Rather than reel from the grief and fear such news most often brings (which is not to say she isn’t afraid), Ruthie refuses to be angry and instead embraces her suffering. She instructs her doctors only to tell her what she needs to do and puts her life in their hands, refusing to hear prognostications. Ruthie’s denial raises troubling questions in Dreher’s mind about accepting truth, but he moves past philosophy as he wrestles with the indifference of reality, keeping in mind Ruthie’s active and self-sacrifical nature: “The truth—the whole truth, that is—would not set her free, but would make her captive to anxiety, and tempt her to despair.”
But The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is less about Ruthie than it is about her community. The world doesn’t rest on Ruthie’s shoulders because her family, friends, students, colleagues, and even mere acquaintances carry it with her, supporting her and her family at every turn. As he searches to understand his sister’s “inner peace and happiness in community,” Dreher comes to understand that if he wants what Ruthie has, he needs to “practice a rule of stability”—to “accept the limitations of a place, in humility.” Only then will “the joys that can be found there…open themselves.”