Rod Deher grew up in St. Francisville, Louisiana along with his sister Ruthie. Though they grew up in the same small, southern town, their lives turned out very differently.
Ruthie was a daddy's girl who embraced the Southern culture, heritage and tradition of her family. She was one hundred and ten percent Southern girl, part tomboy, part Southern Belle. She loved to hunt and fish with her dad and was popular at school. She was pretty, vivacious, outgoing and confident. She became homecoming queen, like her mother, and married her high school sweet heart.
She and her husband, Mike, settled happily down to raise their three girls in the town they were raised in, Mike working at the local fire department, while Ruthie taught at the elementary school.
Rod was different. He thought deeply, he was philosophical, questioning everything. Ruthie believed life was to be lived and enjoyed, not analyzed. Rod's journey took him from rejecting his Methodist upbringing to becoming an atheist, to converting to Roman Catholicism before finally joining the Orthodox Church. Ruthie never left her church, never thought much about it. God was there, He took care of you and you prayed to Him. There was nothing to question or think about.
A turning point for Rod came his freshman year in high school. While on a class trip, the popular kids decided he was going to be their target. The jocks cornered him in a hotel room and pinned him down, threatening to pull down his pants in front of the giggling cheerleaders. He cried to the chaperones for help but they stepped over him and walked out of the room. In the end they let him go without making good their threat but Rod returned from that trip realizing that he wasn't going to be accepted in their small town high school with it's cliques and bullying. Life became harsh for him and when a gifted and talented school opened up in another town he applied and was accepted.
Ruthie and his parents didn't understand why he would want to leave and viewed it as a rejection of their way of life and a betrayal to their family. This barrier would exist as Rod graduated from college, became a journalist, and moved around the country to various metropolises such as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
The division between Rod and Ruthie was especially palpable. Ruthie made it clear she resented Rod with an openly hostile attitude towards him. He found out later that she had even turned her children against him by bad mouthing him to them. What she refused to make clear was why. A true Southern Belle, she refused confrontation. Sweep it under the carpet and pretend everything's just fine. Except it wasn't and the gap between Ruthie and Rod widened.
This impasse might have carried on indefinitely if Ruthie hadn't come down with lung cancer. By the time she finally went to an oncologist it was stage four and had spread to other parts of her body. The doctors didn't give her more than a year to live but Ruthie didn't know it. Her determination not to think about this as she did with anything unpleasant caused her to refuse any information about the seriousness of her condition. She said she wanted people to enjoy their time with her, not wait for her to die.
This is actually where the book starts to become interesting. The first part more or less reads like a eulogy from someone trying to come to terms with someone they loved. Rod starts to examine his reasons for leaving. He tries to engage his sister in telling him why she had so much hostility against him. She would never discuss it. In the hospital he confronted her by saying if he had done anything to hurt her that he was sorry. She brushed his words off with a wave of her hand and kissed him on the cheek.
Ruthie soon died, leaving Rod as much in the dark as ever. His analytical nature forces him to turn the stones over and over. On the one hand his sister was loving and caring. Many students from poverty and minority backgrounds gave their testimony- how Ruthie believed in them and encouraged them, inspiring them to excel. A couple of them left to become professionals in big cities in other parts of the country.
The entire town turned out for her funeral. If there was a most popular girl in town, it was Ruthie. This got Rod to thinking. How many people would bother to turn up for his funeral? The showering of love and support for his sister and family led him to the decision to move his family back to St. Francisville.
On his return he made some startling discoveries. His dad was glad he had left. In fact his father wished he had left when he was a young man. It turns out Rod's paternal grandparents never accepted their daughter-in-law and treated both his father and his mother abominably. He put up with it for years because he believed that you stayed with "your people" regardless of how cruel they were to you.
The other discovery was finding out the cause of Ruthie's anger toward him. One of her close friends confided in him that it was actually his treatment of Ruthie when they were young that was never resolved. Apparently he had been something of a bully to his sister, mercilessly teasing and harassing her. It reached a point where she hit a wall and let it stay between her and her brother.
Too bad Ruthie didn't follow the Biblical mandate that if your brother has something against you, go and make it up with them before offering your gifts to God. (Matthew 5:22-24) But Ruthie was good at not delving too deeply in anything.
Reading this book reminded me of all the Ruthie's I've known in my life. It's almost as if they play a role. Everything stays on the surface, no one is ever let inside. It's a game of pretend that things are fine when they're not. It's so destructive because no one is allowed to deal with issues that hurt and cause division. Healing is never allowed to happen because no one is allowed to admit there's anything wrong. And yet the hurt still comes out. It's not as if Ruthie hid her resentment against her brother, she only refused to admit it was there.
I guess I find myself siding with Rod. Of course he is the one telling the story and Ruthie isn't here to defend herself, but I also spend a lot of time thinking things over, questioning and arguing topics in my mind. I don't understand how someone can be content to glide along the surface and never dive deeply into their life.
In the end Rod sees the pros and cons of both kinds of lifestyles. People who stay home are surrounded by life time friends and family. They always feel loved and are never alone. Those who leave are subject to more isolation but they also experience the richness and variety of culture, people and places that can't be achieved when one never lives anywhere but one place.
One choice offers a sense of belonging and familiarity, the other offers variety and an increased appreciation of life outside our own boxes. One is narrow but the other can be lonely. Especially if you're an outsider trying to break into the clique of one of those small towns. I couldn't help thinking as Rod described his attraction to the family-like atmosphere of his home town that those family-like feelings don't always extend to people "not from 'round here."
I think Rod wrote this book not simply to memorialize his sister, but to work through his own journey and to find closure for his complicated relationship with his sister.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is not an exciting read but it is a thought-provoking one, especially for those of us who have lived both the parochial and cosmopolitan life. Or have had tempestuous relationships with family members.
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