Sunday, April 21, 2013

Getting Home

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that: “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.” In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, author Rod Dreher takes the long way home, while his sister, Ruthie, arrives by the more direct route.

This divergence causes a rift between the siblings, one which isn't fully resolved until the book's final pages. Just as Ruthie was completing her first year leading a classroom as a teacher in their small hometown of St. Francisville, Rod was given a break: an assignment at the Washington Times. Ruthie was distressed, telling their parents: “He's way up there in the big city where we can't help him. What if he gets sick?”

Instead, it was Ruthie who got sick: she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She refused to inquire into the odds of survival; though they were overwhelmingly against her, Ruthie remained upbeat through it all. Her small town, the one Rod had left behind to pursue his dreams, rallied around her. People came from miles away to visit Ruthie, to pray for her, to raise money for her treatment and other family expenses. As an old friend tells Rod, “This is how it's supposed to be. This is what folks are supposed to do for each other.”

It would be difficult to do justice to Rod's tender treatment of his sister's battle with cancer. Suffice it to say that it would take Oscar Wilde's proverbial heart of stone to read this account and not be moved. It is always painful when bad things happen to good people; Ruthie's goodness is so evident that it pains us all the more. Yet despite it all—because of God, because of the way the people of St. Francisville could lean on one another—there is a strange peace, too.

So after a long journey, Rod returns; he and his wife pack up their three kids and move back home. He writes: “My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religions and the leviathan state and every other thing other the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.” Yet, “The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: stay.”

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming sounds many of the same notes as Charles Murray's recent book, Coming Apart. Through a largely analytical approach, Murray tells the story of small towns like St. Francisville: its best and brightest skip town for the attractions of the city. Murray emphasizes the dark side of small town American, its plight worsened by the flight of so many of its residents. As Rod tells it, his town had its problems, too: “poverty... drunkenness... drugs... meanness, and conformity, and lack of professional opportunity.” But there is something that Murray's statistics fail to capture. In our cities, we may bowl alone, but, in towns like St. Francisville, people come together for one another.

Many of today's books insist that the solution to the problem—whatever it is—involves ten steps, all of which are grandiose and implausible. Instead, Rod admonishes us to “seek reconciliation... and love people”; he recounts how he patched up things with the blogger Andrew Sullivan. There is something else, too. If, like Rod, we have left, we can consider making that journey back home.

UPDATE: Rod has kindly taken an excerpt from my review over at his blog.

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