(Disclaimer: Spoiler Alert! This is a summary, rather than a book review.)
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotions. It begins by describing the small-town life of the Dreher family, a whimsical tale of patchwork memories that reinforce the developing differences between a sister and a brother. The author captures the emotions of youth—more feeling than fact—and the third-party quotes used to supplement his memory mimicked the long afternoons spent listening to our parents’ parents expounding on their fond recollections of us in our childhood.
From childhood, we remain silent witnesses as the Dreher children solidify in their differences and begin their adult lives. They live in different worlds and claim different worldviews, but still share that sibling bond. Rod moves off to the big cities and finds God in the Catholic church and a wife to understand him. Ruthie marries the love of her life and then sacrifices him to the military for a time while she works hard at home (Dreher, 2013).
We learned along with Rod the value that comes from putting down roots and investing in the people of one’s own community.
It’s a classic case of jealous judgment when Ruthie reveals her disapproval of what she sees as Rod’s rejection of their family and community. But Rod remains unaware except for jabs during family reunions and the conflict is never resolved. The worst end to that conflict then happens: Ruthie comes down with cancer (Dreher, 2013, p. 101).
Her journey through cancer revealed the extent of the impact on her community’s lives, expressed in the overwhelming outpouring of support. It also proved Ruthie’s unwavering faith in God, love for others so much bigger than herself, and unbreakable spirit of hope. We learned along with Rod the value that comes from putting down roots and investing in the people of one’s own community. He had his big jobs and nice paycheck while she had the support and love of her neighbors.
If the whole community supported her during her illness, then even more came out of the woodworks to support her family after she died. This woman, by loving on children day after day, did indeed change the world one kid at a time. Some of her students had gone on to play important roles in changing their own communities, attributing their success to her alone (Dreher, 2013, p. 187).
During the denouement of this touching story, we watch, teary-eyed, as Rod reaches his own conclusions and finds peace with his sister’s death. He shares his emotional struggles with forgiving her and his family for the hurts they unintentionally inflicted on him. If anything, Rod gave us, while he found it himself, an appreciation for the little things and, most of all, for the people in our lives.
The style of Rod’s writing drew me in immediately and I felt personally acquainted with his family and community. Because of this deep connection he developed for the reader, the emotional roller coaster of his sister’s illness and death carried me right along with it. I felt the high of the incredible support Ruthie’s reputation provided her, spiraled down the twisting drop of more bad news and was impressed by Ruthie’s calm acceptance. I was moved by her immoveable faith and contentment and inspired to spend more time loving others, offering hospitality, and getting to know people’s stories.
Some of her students had gone on to play important roles in changing their own communities, attributing their success to her alone.
I could relate to the Dreher family on a personal level as the sibling relationship mirrored my own in many ways. While not exactly alike, some of the similarities were shocking. For example, my brother is also about two years my senior and a very curious sort. He knows something about everything and everything about some things. It’s like he’s a walking encyclopedia. He also questions everything and is constantly philosophizing about abstract ideas and learning more. I know I can always rely on him to help out if I need it. Me, on the other hand, I live much more in the present. I can pick concepts up quickly and engage in thoughtful conversation, but I never remember the interesting facts that he does. This difference led me to be much more of a simple-faith type kid like Ruthie. I would prefer to stay in the present moment and take people at their word while my brother enjoyed conversing about heady topics like the afterlife and the definition of beauty.
The way I grew up was a lot like Ruthie—simple-minded and resting in faith. I didn’t question the way things were, I just enjoyed what I had and avoided change. I’ve never had a great memory and I think that contributed to my dislike of change. My reasoning was that once something good was replaced, I’d forget it and couldn’t appreciate it fully. Appreciation has always been a big deal for me and if something changed, I felt like I would be unable to continue appreciating the old.
While attending college, I changed in many ways. I became familiar with new ideas, different perspectives, and constant changes in my surroundings and social life. Some of my closest friends would challenge me to confront my beliefs and ask questions to find the reason why I believed what I’d always taken on faith. This new mindset was often uncomfortable, but I grew to appreciate the ways I felt myself growing and maturing in my thinking. Rather than ignoring the faults of myself and others, I learned to face them straight on, call them by name, and find solutions.
This change brought me a little more in line with Rod’s personality—always moving and questioning things. When I read the story of Ruthie and saw how much an impact her ‘simple’ way of living had on her community, I no longer felt so bad for wanting to stay close to home and live like she did. My college experiences, while valuable, drove me to imagine that I needed to move away from home, have grand adventures, and challenge the status quo of the world. The focus of my classes and clubs was always globally minded, while I just really dreamed of serving in my hometown. This book, if nothing else, affirmed that that desire was legitimate and just as useful for God’s kingdom as any other pursuit.
Some of my closest friends would challenge me to confront my beliefs and ask questions to find the reason why I believed what I’d always taken on faith.
In class, I heard the quote “change is only change until you process it.” Rod’s moving away, both siblings’ marriages, and especially Ruthie’s death were major changing points in their lives. The ‘normal’ before and after these instances were drastically different for each person involved. But through the book and their lives, each change eventually became the new normal. It’s interesting to read about the changes in others’ lives and then to think about the changes in one’s own life. The compact summary of years of experience leave their changes raw and recent for the reader. I caught myself thinking how I’ve never had so much change in my life, until I realized that I have, but over my whole lifetime, not in 260 pages.
Another quote I heard in class that resonated well with the impression I got of Ruthie was, “all the water in the ocean can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside” (Attributed to Goi Nasu, n.d.). She was bombarded with bad news after worse news during her illness, yet she impressed everyone around her by her faithful trust in God and unwillingness to submit her spirit to the ugly head of cancer.
The high point in the book for me was the time when Ruthie was dating and first married to Mike. I fell in love with their love story and the amazing people both of them were. “’Ruthie was always thinking about what she could do to help Mike. And he was all about, ‘What can I do to help Ruthie?’ Each one only thought about the other one. They were how marriage is supposed to be,’” remembers one of Ruthie’s bridesmaids (Dreher, 2013, p. 37). They served their country in the military and their community as a fireman and teacher. That selfless service, hospitality, and kindness won them the respect and love of their neighbors that carried them through their hard times.
This story reminded me again of the power of love and community and fueled my desire to be deeply connected with the people around me wherever I end up living.
As hard as it was to read about Ruthie’s death and its aftermath, the lowest point in the book for me was Rod’s struggle to understand and comes to terms with the contempt Ruthie held toward him and allowed to permeate within her family. For a woman who loved everyone and who everyone loved, for a sister who he looked up to as an angel, this betrayal of being the only individual on the planet he knew she disapproved of, broke my heart right alongside his.
Storytelling draws the reader in on a variety of emotional levels and can drive a point home in an astonishingly effective manner. The emotions I experienced in this story were impactful and life-changing for me. I have already recommended this book to friends who are dealing with change, along with a disclaimer about the very real possibility of crying in public. It reminded me again of the power of love and community and fueled my desire to be deeply connected with the people around me wherever I end up living—perhaps back in my home town!
Dreher, Rod. (2013). The little way of Ruthie Leming: A southern girl, a small town, and the secret of a good life. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing
Nasu, Goi. (n.d.). Goi Nasu. Goodreads quotes. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/827450-an-entire-sea-of-water-can-t-sink-a-ship-unless