We will begin our study of Rod Dreher with his second book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life because it was the first to be delivered to my library.
The title of Rod's book immediately calls to mind the story of Saint Therese of Lisiex, the "little flower," as it no doubt is meant to do. St. Therese was a young nun who found relief in abasing herself as much as possible and enjoyed suffering from tuberculosis. She said:
Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.
The Little Way of St. Therese is the devotion of every little action of one's life to God.
For me, prayer is a movement of the heart; it is a simple glance toward Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and love in times of trial as well as in times of joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus...I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers...I do like a child who does not know how to read; I say very simply to God what I want to say, and He always understands me.
Dreher's book is the story of his sister Ruth and the way in which her goodness revealed Dreher's specialness and sanctity. Through her life devoted to her family, teaching job, and community, she showed the superiority of Rod Dreher and his chosen ways of life. Her death purified and sanctified Rod and perhaps everyone else and the beautiful tale is overflowing with God's gifts and special attentions to him. And Ruth.
Rod first became aware that there was something special about his younger sister when, at about five years old, she begged her father to beat her with a belt instead of Rod for something obnoxious he had done. Despite the deep impression her attempted sacrifice made on him, Rod could not recall what he had done to deserve the beating. He did, however, remember the exact words she used, and that her father couldn't beat either one of them due to the sweet purity of her act.
Despite the fact that they both grew up in the country, Rod condescends to refer to his sister as a "country mouse" and to himself as a "city mouse." The two could not have been more different and Rod didn't realize her specialness at first, although he describes her as "quite possibly the kindest person many people in our Louisiana parish had ever met." One aspect of her specialness, which Rod mentions twice in the first two pages of the book, is her Little Way of frequently beating up her brother when his teasing irritated her past all patience.
Rod lovingly related all the times in which his sister showed him up in sports, speed and strength, in competitiveness, in closeness and rapport with their parents, and in popularity. She had lots of friends and "no enemies," said Rod, and their mother said she was "just kind of magical." He describes their childhood in the small town of Starhill as halcyon days of baseball games, fishing, and neighborly closeness that Rod did not always feel part of. When a local boy died and Rod overheard his father and another man weeping. "I didn't know how to take it, and went away," he said; it was not the last time Rod didn't understand those around him.
Despite Rod's penchant for needling his sister, his physical description of himself as "pudgy, weak and embarrassingly uncoordinated," his inability to hunt without gagging, and his preference for television, comic books and novels instead of the outdoor activities beloved of almost every other boy in the community, Rod said he "had been one of the most popular kids in my class." And despite Ruth's penchant for whaling the tar out of Rod, when he was jumped by two of his "pals" in childhood, Ruthie came to his rescue. But Ruth couldn't help Rod when, "for some reason," everyone in his school turned on him and hazed him during a class trip. The event made an indelible impression on 14-year-old Rod, so much so that the rest of the first chapter is devoted entirely to his suffering.
In 19 all-too-brief pages we are shown the course of Ruth's childhood which formed her character and made her into the saint that she became, along with extensive detours into Rod's life, character and travails. "Ruthie and I knew we were in a special family," Rod said. "Our family was happy and secure."
"Paw was a strict disciplinarian, but he didn't have to do it [beat them with a belt] often because we had such respect for him and for Mam. He was the kind of man you wanted to please because he seemed so strong, so wise, and so good.... We hero-worshipped him, Ruthie and I did."
Unfortunately, Paw didn't think much of Rod, as Rod explains in loving detail. "Me, the kind of man I was, I wanted you to be outside, with me," his father said.
Paw fought with Rod all the time. "To my father for me to disagree with him on important matters was not simply to be mistaken. It was to reject him and what he stood for. You can imagine the hurt he suffered. You can imagine the frustration I endured." Actually we don't need to imagine because Rod covers it in great detail. Rod tells of how his father buckled under and did what his own parents wanted instead of what he wanted to do. Paw endured family disapproval and rejection but did his duty anyway, putting family and community first. The least Rod could have done was reinforce the validity of Paw's sacrifices by doing the same but Rod refused.
"During this time I fought often with my father. I honestly can't remember what we argued over, but I remember him being frustrated with my outcast status.... It was especially hard for my strong-willed father, who could not empathize with a son whose way of seeing the world was increasingly alien to his own. In one of our yelling matches Paw accused me of bringing all this on myself for being so obstinately strange. And that's when I knew how alone I was."
Rod's only consolation as a child was his two ancient great-great aunts, who petted him but rejected Ruth, not caring for little girls. They described their adventures in France to little Rod and read his palm, mystically predicting he would travel far as they had. They met famous people and ate exotic foods, had expensive and fine works of art, read the newspapers and discussed world events with the little boy, and Rod adored the special attention they gave him and him alone. As an adult Rod continued to feel special through fine foods, travel and writing.
Ruth's Little Way blossomed in her teenage years, where her saintly "doing of the least actions for love" manifested as happy days spent working hard in school, hanging out at beery parties with her friends, and making out with her boyfriend and eventual husband Mike. Mike became the son Paw never had, one who actually enjoyed being with him and learning from him. Ruth was class valedictorian and homecoming queen and fit in with the elite students that tormented young Rod until he escaped to a public boarding school for gifted and talented students. Ruth's girlhood speeds by in 14 short pages and before we know it Ruth and Rod are both attending LSU. But Ruth was still the simple girl with, Rod pointed out over and over, a simple mind and simple heart.
During the week [Ruth] stayed buried in her books, worked hard, and made perfect grades. I was studying journalism, philosophy, political science, and considered long, beery arguments over existentialism with my fellow young scholars to be time well spent. My college transcript, while respectable, does not support this generous interpretation.
At LSU Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied. she my have experienced on campus the same frustration and envy I felt when Ruthie triumphed on every front back home with so little effort. Worse, Ruthie could not understand what I studied, and what engaged me intellectually, and therefore she regarded it with suspicion, even loathing.
One evening she shared a table in the cafeteria with my best friend Paul and me. Paul, a political theory major and I, minoring in philosophy and political science, loved to talk about big ideas. That evening we got off on something about Nietzsche and the death of God. Ruthie listened patiently, but finally lost her cool. She told us she thought that was the "stupidest bunch of you-know-what" that she had ever heard.
"What is wrong with y'all? she said. "Listen to you. You sit here for hours talking about his crap, and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking; you're not doing anything.
We thought she was putting us on, but Ruthie wasn't joking.
"I'm serious, y'all," she said. "I don't understand the two of you. I really don't . What good is any of this y'all are talking about going to do anybody? Do you really think you're going to support yourselves with this stuff? What does any of it mean in the real world?"
She wouldn't listen to anything either of us had to say in defense of philosophy or philosophizing. At the time I thought Ruthie's prickly anti-intellectualism was funny.Despite her holiness, Ruth underestimated Rod's ability to talk (and write) endlessly about nothing and sell his nothings to conservative venues eager to publish rambling, pseudo-intellectual moralizing, spiteful, angry attacks on people Rod considered his enemies, and self-satisfied, condescending observations of people Rod considered his inferiors.
When Ruth's first daughter was born Rod tried to return home and his father was triumphant. Rod was horrified that his father thought Rod was finally giving in and reinforcing his father's values instead of accepting and appreciating his son for who he was. He left home once again but Rod never stopped trying to get approval and acceptance and what he did get was never enough because it wasn't from his father and sister. He turned each of his likes and dislikes into movements and crusades. His elitism became the Crunch Con movement, as he tried to show that his way was the right and moral and only way to live and he deflected his anger at his family by showering scorn on people who lived in McMansions or refused to homeschool their children.
Rod's suffering is central and foremost to his depiction of Ruth and her Little Way. He subtitles his book "the secret to a good life" but alas, the secret is never revealed to him because he is so different from Ruth. Rod tells us that he is complex where Ruth is simple in mind and faith, stubbornly set in her mind where "it was my nature to investigate, to dissect, to analyze." Ruth hated elitism and extravagance while Rod loved eating elite foods, renting grand homes, and mixing with the great and powerful at places such as National Review (one assumes; he never mentions that job). Every shopping trip to buy imported ham or every fine bottle of wine reinforced Rod's elite status in his own eyes but Ruth just didn't understand their or his importance in the world.
Ruth's inability to appreciate Rod's specialness affected their relationship for the rest of her brief life. While Ruth taught school and gave birth to three daughters, Mike joined the National Guard, served in Iraq, and became a fireman. Rod made "twice their salary combined" writing movie review in New York for the New York Post and his wife Julie worked at Commentary with "a number of the leading intellectual polemicists and essayists of our time," such as John Podhoretz, Elliot Abrams, and Marty Peretz. Rod's visits home were always filled with tension as Ruth stubbornly refused to appreciate Rod's "important work" in journalism and as intellectual thought leader.
His overwhelming need to feel special to compensate for his family's rejection sent him on a permanent religious quest, to get from God what he could not get from them. He joined the Catholic Church, attracted to the grandeur of its possessions and its self-soothing rituals. Its enemies became his enemies and he raged at and scorned gays, blaming them for the priest's rapes and molestations. Ruth told him he was "holier-than-thou." He bought icons, relics, rosaries, and prayer ropes, went on pilgrimages and prayed obsessively. He saw miracles everywhere, telling himself that the Blessed Virgin Mary took time out of her busy afterlife to bathe him in the scent of roses, that angels and dead relatives visited him and his family. He became Orthodox Christian for the mysticism. He said, "I don't know what my sister thought of this, but if she gave it any thought at all, she probably figured it was more of her flighty brother's churchy nonsense."
Whenever Rod visited home he patiently tried to explain to her why public schools were cultural and moral wastelands but inexplicably the public school teacher was not impressed that Julie homeschooled their children because it was the only moral way to raise children. Ross's alienation from home and family became the country's alienation from family and community.
"I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, short on deeds.... 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 religion and the levanthian state and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence."But Ruth's illness from lung cancer and death revealed that for some people, community support and family love still existed. Rod badly wanted what Ruth had and couldn't understand why she didn't like or respect him despite all his great accomplishments and refined, godly nature. "Ruthie plainly loved me, but she just as plainly though that I was a snob and a fraud," he said. He wrote The Little Way as a glorification of what he had once rejected, imbuing Ruth with sanctity and telling himself that her suffering had purified him, Rod Dreher, and brought him closer to God and family. As the book closes Rod and family move back home to have "the opportunity to be a part of something extraordinary." He rented a beautiful house in the Historic District and pictured himself "sipping bourbon and putting the world to rights." He felt "the grace around us, pushing us forward."
Rod and Julie "made sure to explain [to their Philadelphia friends] that we weren't moving away from something bad-we loved them, and we loved our Philly life-but toward something good." Their friends all were no doubt grateful for the Rod Dreher Seal of Approval despite their failure to appreciate rural life because they all immediately told Rod that he was right and they were lacking something in their lives. But it didn't work. Rod still felt unwanted and unappreciated by his father and developed a new movement and wrote a new book about using Dante to find one's way in life.
Recently Rod's father died, forever denying him his unconditional love, and he is now pushing yet another book in which he tells his readers that the only way to live is to retreat from others into a small, tightly knit community of Orthodox Christians. He still battles his enemies, for Islam and secular humanism are trying to destroy his little communities, just like gays destroyed the Catholic Church and the cool kids in high school destroyed his happy childhood.