CAUTION: Spoiler alert!
I am a huge fan of Rod Dreher’s column on The American Conservative, and I’ve read a couple of his other books, so when I saw The Little Way of Ruthie Leming at a used book sale, I grabbed it with glee. The book didn’t disappoint. In short, it’s a memoir about Rod’s younger sister Ruthie, who passed away at age 40 from an aggressive form of cancer. Ruthie wasn’t wealthy or famous or “worthy” to be the subject of a memoir in the way that celebrities are, but she indeed seemed to live a saintly life, and the definition of sainthood was what Rod came to grips with throughout the book.
Rod lived a vastly different life from that of his sister; he escaped the small Louisiana town of their childhood in favor of a journalist’s worldly life in the big city. Ruthie, on the other hand, was content to remain in the little town, marry her high school sweetheart, and become a teacher. In a sense, it was like the city mouse/country mouse story from childhood and made readers ponder the question: Is it better to have a “big life” or a “small life”? The answer is honestly either one, just as long as you live according to moral standards.*
As I read the book, I found myself relating to both Rod and Ruthie. On his blog, Rod echoes a lot of my own views on various subjects, but he often comes across as pretentious and privileged. Ruthie enjoyed the simple things in life, as I do, but she didn’t seem to value learning and books in the same way Rod does. The difference between the two siblings reminded me a lot of the division where I live. On one hand, you have the simple Southern people who have lived in North Carolina their entire lives. They tend to enjoy the typical Southern life, which is slow-paced and involves close ties between family and friends. North Carolina natives tend to be good, honest, “salt-of-the-earth” people, but they also can be ignorant or intolerant of anything that goes against their way of life or beliefs. This was how Rod described Ruthie and other Louisiana natives in the memoir—as quite close-minded—but of course, that’s not their fault. That’s how they have been raised and they’re satisfied that way. They are content with what they have and don’t see any reason to broaden their horizons.
The other part of North Carolina is taken over by “Yankees” who recently moved from New York and other Northern states. If you ask the native North Carolinians, the Yankees have totally destroyed North Carolina’s culture with their high-class, fast-paced ways. They’re forcing new roads and highways and homes to be built, which is ruining the environment, and they’re in favor of upscale stores like Whole Foods and niche boutiques that are causing the prices of everything else to go up. Houses are going for outrageously high prices, and who can afford them but the Yankees? Many of the Yankees work in the Research Triangle Park area and tend to be highly educated and current on the latest technologies. Because they’re not native, many of their family members live elsewhere. Thus, family may not seem like it’s as much of a priority to them as it is for the native North Carolinians (but I’m sure it probably is).
I did come from New York, but that was in the mid-1990s when I was a little kid, so I find it hard to relate to the newest wave of “Yankees” who have arrived in my state. I love the native North Carolinians I know, and they do tend to have a better and more fulfilling lifestyle in that they value what is truly important: family and friends. But I, like Rod, tend to get impatient with them because they don’t seem to value education and “book smarts” in the same way that I do. They are very set in their ways. However, I’m constantly aware that my impatience with them may make me come off as pretentious and high-falutin.
Ruthie Leming’s “little way” (i.e., doing small things with great love, also espoused by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta) is a simple faith that anyone can live by. From what I gathered from reading the memoir, Rod is still coming to terms with this “little way” and how to reconcile it with a world that seems focused on the things that don’t ultimately matter. Like Rod, I have issues with trying to follow the “little way” and reconciling it with what I know (from education and being a native New Yorker) and what I value (from my parents, my religion, and the aspects of the Southern life I admire).
The book can be read for the enjoyable and inspiring (although obviously very sad) story, or for a more in-depth study of culture and faith if you’re the kind of person who, like the author (and me), tends to overanalyze everything.
*What is “morally acceptable” and what is a “good person” are extremely subjective these days. I personally believe in objective morality, but many do not, and that’s a topic for another post.