Dreher’s book about love, loss and homecoming

THE LITTLE WAY OF RUTHIE LEMING

By Rod Dreher

Grand Central Publishing, $25.95

Ruthie Leming died Sept. 15, 2011, in her home in Starhill, a little West Feliciana Parish place that’s really too small to even be called a town. Dreher is the brother of Leming, and this work centers on her death at age 42, but that is certainly not all this book is about.

Dreher begins the story by remembering the Mayberry-esque atmosphere he and his sister enjoyed as children. Family surrounded them. A pair of elderly aunts, Lois and Hilda (“technically great-great aunts”) lived in a small house just across the way from the home of Dreher’s parents, Dorothy and Ray Dreher — “Mam and Paw.” Even as a very young child, Dreher would spend the day there, navigating the three-minute walk to the old ladies’ place with “a couple of diapers” in hand. There he was given homemade cookies, tales of their European adventures as Red Cross nurses in the Great War and free access to photo albums and atlases full of maps. For a child with a strong imagination, it was better than TV. Not that the aunts’ tutoring was all about far away places. They also imparted advice that helped the young boy order things in the bayou Eden that was West Feliciana Parish of the 1970s.

“There was a king snake that lived in the bushes under a huge magnolia tree in Loisie and Mossie’s yard. Loisie taught me that the old snake was our friend. If he was there, she said, he would keep rattlesnakes away. One day when I was eight, I walked with a friend to the aunts’ cottage, and there was the king snake, black as night and marked by pale yellow runes, stretched across the pea gravel, sunning itself. My friend was paralyzed by fear, but I stepped right over the snake without bothering him. Loisie had said he was our friend, hadn’t she, and insasmuch as she was the happy genius of this grove, who was I to doubt her?”

In short, Dreher was the sort of dreamy, bookish child who delights librarians and teachers but isn’t much of a hand at clearing fence rows and overhauling a tractor engine. His sister Ruthie, however, was tomboyish and preferred to spend time with her father. She loved to fish and liked being outdoors. She was the apple of her father’s eye. Paw loved his son too, but he didn’t understand him in the same instinctive way he understood his daughter.

As with so many sensitive, aspiring intellectuals living in Podunk, Dreher felt misunderstood and misplaced. “Our family’s social life revolved around neighborhood fish fries, crawfish boils, and barbecues.” A trip to town meant a visit to St. Francisville. The big city nearby was Baton Rouge. Ruthie loved it. Dreher liked it, but longed for that something more.

In school, Ruthie was popular. Dreher was a geeky, odd kid waiting to be pushed in the hallway. She loved school. He hated it. He flew the coop as soon as he could, absconding to the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a Natchitoches boarding school for gifted students in their sophomore, junior and senior years. Ruthie finished school in West Feliciana Parish.

LSU followed. Ruthie became a teacher after graduation, Dreher a writer. Ruthie married her high school sweetheart and settled in West Feliciana Parish, a perfect fit. Dreher lived and worked in Washington, D.C., New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, and worked at The Advocate for a while. He married a woman from Dallas and started a family far from Louisiana. Visits home were a joy for Dreher, but there was always a subtle current of conflict between him and his sister, who seemed to feel that he put on airs and looked down on the simpler pleasures of life in rural Louisiana.

Then in 2010 things changed. Ruthie developed a persistent cough. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. Her hacking just got worse and worse. Exploratory surgery was ordered.

“Ruthie’s doctors scheduled surgery for February 16 — Mardi Gras, 2010. Fat Tuesday, the high holy day of south Louisiana revelry. They would go into her lungs to excise and biopsy the growth near her heart.”

The prognosis was grim. It was lung cancer. Dreher and his family rallied to his sister’s side. Dreher, then working in Philadelphia, flew home to be with them. During his stay, he had a moment of crystal revelation with his sister.

“That morning in Starhill the japonicas were in bloom, and a lone paperwhite peered at Ruthie from just beyond the porch rail. It was crazy to think that just one week ago, Ruthie was reveling at the Spanish Town parade. Now she knew her body was being consumed by cancer. She was so beautiful that morning, in the sunshine, and an awful thought crossed my mind: I’m never going to see her like this again. She was forty years old, in the prime of her life, glowing with health; the black ridge at the base of her neck where surgeons had gone in was the only sign that something was wrong with her.”

Dreher is a blogger and political writer. He is used to writing in the first person and adopts it for this book. When you write in first person, you become part of the story — what you write is as much about you as anything else as you filter your observations through the prism of your own opinion. That is all right in this case because Dreher is an interesting guy who has had the alienated intellectual experience. He is a seeker who puts his theological and religious questing on full view in his writing. Because of that egocentric frankness, this book reads a bit more like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than like The Last Lecture.

What is clear though, is that it’s a love story, a good one. Dreher loves his sister, and no one will be able to read the account of her final minutes with a dry eye. He also loves Starhill and West Feliciana Parish. That’s not so apparent to the reader or to Dreher himself until he goes through the experience of losing Ruthie and decides to embrace her “little way.”