Grand Central Publishing. 288 pages. $25.99.
This soulful biography has the makings of an American classic. It has attributes that are likely to put it on all kinds of reading lists: family dynamics, coping with illness, grieving, religious questioning, small town life, and regional culture to name a handful. Its subtitle pushes some of these buttons: “A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.”
Rod Dreher, a prominent journalist and well-followed blogger, tells the story of his younger sister, Ruthie, who died after a harrowing bout with cancer in September 2011. He writes about the characteristics of a small Southern community, the town of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Dreher explores the town’s sense of history and the long roots that many extended families have there. It’s a place that while some leave, many stay, so that today’s family names are a part of that history. Cousins are all around, and properties connect with one another. The community where the Drehers lived and live is called Starhill. It’s a place that is so small and so connected that everyone knows or knows of just about everyone else, a place where neighbors look out for one another.
It’s a place that as a youth the author found to be conformist, narrow, and intolerant of difference. He made his escape after high school graduation, cementing his role as an outsider while building a journalism career in major urban centers. Thus he seemed an elitist – too good for the place of his birth and schoolboy years. His returns were uncomfortable.
Ruthie, however, grew to become the fairest flower of the community. Though she had a playful, fun- loving side, her concerns were always seriously and strongly tied to the place – to her family and her community. Her marriage to Mike Leming was rock solid. Her position in the town was assured by her parents’ reputation for congeniality and generosity. Invariably supportive of her many friends, Ruthie knew how to make others feel welcome and important. Her caring nature inspired others. Her achievements as a public school teacher were astounding: she always found a way of breaking through to children lacking confidence or motivation. She changed lives.
She didn’t know another way to be. Ruthie Dreher Leming understood fully, in her soul, her place in God’s plan. She didn’t question it, she reveled in it. Helping others made her glow. . .
The full review appears as the June Read of the Month in Southern Literary Review. Click here: June Read of the Month: “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” by Rod Dreher