If you read just one work of serious nonfiction this spring, let it be Rod Dreher's beautiful, moving memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. At the center of the book is the emotionally gripping story of the death of the author's sister from cancer at the age of 42. But that story is embedded in an another — an intellectually and spiritually provocative account of Dreher's youthful flight from and eventual return (after Ruthie's death) to his Louisiana hometown (population 1,700). It is these bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography. Dreher has written a powerful statement about how we live today — and more importantly, about how we should live.
The book tells the story of two very different siblings. For Ruthie, home was the whole world. Raised in Starhill, La., she chose to remain there, devoting herself to her parents (Mam and Paw), marrying her high school sweetheart (firefighter and Iraq War veteran Mike Leming), becoming a schoolteacher, and raising her children amid the familiar people and places she'd known from the time she was born. She loved them unconditionally, and with all her heart.
For older brother Rod, the same town often felt like a prison. Bookish, curious, restless, and just geeky enough to inspire bullies to tease and humiliate him, he longed to escape small town life — to travel and experience new people and places, to make his name in a wider world. So he became a journalist and a striver, moving through a series of cities — Baton Rouge, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia — as his career advanced and he began to raise a family of his own. On Rod's occasional trips back to Starhill, his family (including his sister) would express uncomprehending disdain for his decision to move away from home — and that disdain convinced Rod over and over again that he'd done the right thing in leaving.
But then Ruthie got sick. On visits back home during the 19 months she waged a losing battle with cancer and in the days immediately following her death, Dreher was repeatedly stunned by everyday acts of kindness and love in his hometown. Neighbors cooked meals and cleaned house for the overwhelmed Leming family. The community raised $43,000 in a single night to help them pay their medical bills. At Ruthie's funeral, the pallbearers removed their shoes, carrying her coffin barefoot in tribute to her love of the outdoors. As Mike Leming put it shortly after Ruthie's death, "We're leanin', but we're leanin' on each other."
When Dreher resolved to follow Ruthie's "little way" by giving up his life on the East Coast, returning to rural Louisiana, and writing a book defending the decision, he placed himself firmly in the camp of conservatives who congregate at a website called Front Porch Republic and contribute regularly to The American Conservative (by far the freshest and most intellectually serious magazine on the Right). Unlike the leaders of the mainstream conservative movement, Patrick Deneen, Mark T. Mitchell, Russell Arben Fox, Jeremy Beer, and the other "Porchers" have little interest in engaging with inside-the-Beltway power politics. Instead, they prefer to act as gadflies, denouncing the imperial ethos and influence-peddling that dominates Washington, as well as the boundless greed that drives would-be Masters of the Universe from around the country to seek their fortunes on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Influenced by an eclectic range of thinkers, including sociologists Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Catholic philosopher David Schindler, and poet and essayist Wendell Berry, the Porchers see conservatism as a disposition or way of living locally, within moral, religious, economic, and environmental limits, in tightly knit, sustainable community with neighbors and the natural world. If they have a rallying cry, it's "Stay Put!" Or, in Dreher's case, "Go Home!"
Not that Dreher's account of small-town life is romantic or naive. One of his book's greatest strengths is its refreshing candor about the oppressive parochialism, stubborn close-mindedness, and petty cruelties that can make life in the provinces seem intolerable to many of those who choose to leave them behind. But Dreher has belatedly found something there that eludes so many of the nation's restive, anxious strivers: The peace and fulfillment that we associate with happiness.
If there's a defect in the book and its message — and the message of Dreher's localist conservative compatriots — it can be found in a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you're one of the tens of millions of people who can't stay in or go home to the heartland because your home — your roots — are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast?
I ask because I'm one of them. Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, raised in the New York suburbs of southern Connecticut, current resident of the Philadelphia Main Line, I'm unclear about what Dreher would have me do. If he's a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am — or perhaps in my "hometowns" of New York City and Fairfield County, Conn. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I — like my equally striving neighbors — devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days? If I were independently wealthy, perhaps the good life that Dreher describes would be a possibility in the Philadelphia suburbs. But alas...
Things are different in rural Louisiana. And that's why I can't help but conclude that Dreher and his fellow Porchers must be advocating an anti-urban ideology of ruralism. If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.
What's the link between community and the good life? Is ambition compatible with happiness? How much work is too much? Are limits a necessary component of human flourishing? And if so, where should we set them? For raising these and other pressing questions — and for inviting us to share in the suffering and struggles that led him to reconsider his original answers to them — Rod Dreher deserves high praise. And a wide audience.