The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book of real pain and real tragedy. Unlike a conventional Hollywood screenplay, the story doesn’t proceed inevitably to a tidy, feel-good conclusion. Here, the stakes are high, and you can’t escape the overwhelming sense of regret and sadness. Imagine having a tortured relationship with someone you love, and then that person dies thinking you were a “fraud” of some kind.
To the benefit of this book, Dreher doesn’t obsess over the question “why”, pursuing a resolution where one can’t be found. Rather, he submits, after some consideration, to the unknown. He describes his and Ruthie’s fallen relationship as “a mystery to be lived”. As with the question of theodicy, which briefly comes up, he doubts that having an explanation would actually ease his mind.
In an age that demands answers and seeks mastery over life’s details, Dreher instead humbled himself before the wonder and uncertainty of the human experience. He didn’t find full peace by acknowledging his powerless position, but it did help him to achieve a measure of clarity. There’s a lesson here to ponder. To embrace what we can’t know isn’t a display of weakness. It’s a recognition of our limited purview.
If, like me, you live very far away from the place you were born, you will at times find this book almost unbearably difficult to read. But only almost, because you will also find in it a moving affirmation of the sense that most of us can only discern rarely and vaguely in the bustle of our daily lives—the sense that beyond our petty vanities and momentary worries, beyond arguments and ambitions, beyond even principles and ideals, there is a kind of gentle, caring warmth that is really what makes life worth living. It is expressed through the words and acts of people who rise above themselves, but it seems to come from somewhere deeper. Maybe it’s divine, maybe it isn’t, but it’s real, and it effortlessly makes a mockery of a lot of what goes by the name of moral and political philosophy, and especially of the radical individualism that is so much a part of both the right and the left today. And it’s responsible for almost everything that is very good in our very good world. If I had to define what conservatism ultimately means for me, it would be the preservation and reinforcement of the preconditions for the emergence of that goodness in a society of highly imperfect human beings.
The book made Justin Green cry – “not watery-eyed man-tears, but unashamed weeping.” It also reminded him of his own Nebraskan upbringing and his love-hate relationship to the small town he left behind:
All of it was for us: the stifling nature, the insistence that everyone should know everything about everyone, that we should all be hyperinvolved in a slew of activities that had little to do with us, the small talk, and the identification of people by family instead of individual personality. That’s all by design, it’s all because of love, and it’s something I’m glad I got to experience. It’s community, and most kids my age will never know what that really means. I don’t like my hometown. But I do love it, because it – in its own infuriating way – taught me the most important lesson in life: you haven’t grown up until you care about someone else more than yourself.