Dreher’s journey takes him back home again

“Coming back (home) is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours–long hallways and unforeseen stairwells–eventually puts you in the place you are now.” ― Ann Patchett, What now?

Star Hill is one of those places that seldom registers on a map.

For its handful of residents, the small community in West Feliciana Parish near St. Francisville is home. It’s also a metaphor for their way of life.

Even though he grew up there, Rod Dreher admits it took a long time for him to come to that realization.

Dreher has enjoyed a successful career as an award-winning journalist, writing for publications in major markets like Dallas and New York. He is currently a senior editor and blogger for American Conservative.

But after his little sister, Ruthie Leming, a wife and mother of three daughters, was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer in 2009, during his subsequent visits home, Dreher learned a number of valuable life lessons from Ruthie and her close-knit friends and family.

The poignant story of Dreher’s journey, and the impact of Ruthie’s life and untimely death on her small community, is chronicled in his book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming – A Southern Girl, A Small Town and the Secret of a Good Life.

A blurb on the inside front of the dust jacket describes the scene at a local benefit event for Ruthie:

“A concert at the town sports park, dubbed Leming Aid, raised $43,000 to help Ruthie, a local schoolteacher, and her husband, Mike, an Iraq war veteran, pay their medical bills. At the event an old friend pulled the author (Dreher) aside, pointed to the crowd of people there to support his sister and said, ‘This is how it is supposed to be. This is what folks do for each other.’ ”

Rod Dreher and his sister, Ruthie Leming, in Summer of 2011.

Indeed, Dreher was so touched by the love and support the community showed Ruthie and her family, he and his wife, Julie, eventually decided to move back to St. Francisville with their three children.

“The thing we saw in this community changed our hearts,” said Dreher, casually sitting in the same rocking chair on his porch featured in the book’s cover photo. A couple of hours later, a steady stream of friends, family and friendly strangers visited Dreher during his first book signing at Grandmother’s Buttons in St. Francisville. He wrote personal messages and chatted warmly with every one who stopped by.

In a straightforward and simple narrative style, Dreher’s book also tells the story of Ruthie’s grace and courage in the face of death, which came on Sept. 15, 2011. He saw first hand how a schoolteacher, wife and mother could live a good and meaningful life in the same small town where they grew up.

Ruthie Leming at her last birthday dinner at Magnolia Café on May 15, 2011.

“I learned two things,” said Dreher. “One, everybody here knows your business. When you’re older, that means that you don’t suffer alone. In a big city, you’re anonymous and that was appealing to me when I was younger. Two, you need people to hold you up. The same tight social bonds that held me down I thought as a teen-ager, were the same thing that held me up – us up – when Ruthie died. I believe there’s something special about South Louisiana.”

After graduating in the first class of the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, Dreher earned a journalism degree from LSU. After a brief stint at The Advocate, his career took him to Washington, New York, South Florida, Dallas, and Philadelphia, where he was living with his family when Ruthie became ill.

“The older I got, I wanted my kids to be Southern,” said Dreher, 46, and two years older than Ruthie. “I never imagined I could give that to them living where we were living.”

He talks about all the little things in life that become so important – things like homecoming parades, deer hunting, LSU football games and parties on the sand bars of Thompson’s Creek. He admits when he was younger, he thought he had to leave home in order to live a full life.

At the same time, The Little Way is not just a feel-good book that analyzes life through rose-tinted glasses. It doesn’t have a Hollywood ending.

“It’s about the truth,” Dreher admitted. “I had conflict with my sister and with my Dad. But there was also redemption and love and faith. None of it was cheap. It was all bought very dearly. It’s always better to live in truth even if the truth is painful.”

The reviews have been very positive for the book, the major Spring release for Grand Central Publishing of New York. The Little Way has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and other major newspapers across the country. It is also listed among Amazon’s “Best Books of the Month,” an impressive feat. Some have called it the “new Steel Magnolias.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, wrote for the dust cover, “If you are not prepared to cry, to learn, and to have your heart cracked open even a little bit by a true story of love, surrender, sacrifice, and family, then please do not read this book. Otherwise, do your soul a favor, and listen carefully to the unforgettable lessons of Ruthie Leming.”

Debbie Elliott of National Public Radio spent time in St. Francisville interviewing Dreher and some of the people who knew Ruthie best and her story aired the day after the book’s official release of April 9.

Author Rod Dreher signs a copy of his book for Erikka Neal at Grandmother’s Buttons in St. Francisville.

Dreher also took off on a national book signing tour that started in New York with visits planned to Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and several cities across the South. The tour concludes on April 20 at Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge.

There’s a unique and colorful map of Starhill in the endpapers, created by English artist Alice Tail. Frame-sized prints are available exclusively at Grandmother’s Buttons. The maps retail for $25, with half the proceeds going into a special Ruthie Leming Scholarship Fund for West Feliciana students.

For Dreher, writing the book was cathartic in many ways.

“I learned the true value of this place,” he said, sitting on his porch. “I saw through Ruthie what I had. I hope the book lets the whole world know what all of us have.”

Indeed, before Dreher left to meet some friends for lunch, his wife introduced herself and his three children – Mathew, 13, Lucas, 9, and Nora, 6, — were polite and friendly. They seemed happy and right at home.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks described it, they “decided to accept the limitations of small town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.”