David Frum

04.10.13

How 'The Little Way of Ruthie Leming' Taught Me It's OK to Love My Hometown

Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, on the life and death of his sister, made me cry. Not watery-eyed man-tears, but unashamed weeping. It will do the same to you, because it's an honest book about family, home, loss, and the pain none of us can avoid forever.

And Little Way will certainly garner impressive and deep reviews from people with talents far beyond mine. I'm not sure I can add any part of a review about Little Way that won't be better said by someone else, so I think I'll tell a story that will sound familiar to Rod and people who grow up nerdy and uncomfortable in their ancestral hometowns. 

I'm from a little town of 1,400 people on the western edge of the corn belt. Or, to be more accurate, my Mom's family is from there. I didn't arrive until I was 14, the summer before starting high school. My Dad was working for the USDA, my Grandma was in failing health, and my Mom jumped at the chance to let my Dad commute a little bit less and move us closer to family.

So off to Sutton, Nebraska we went.

Geographically, Rod's hometown of St. Francisville, Lousiana could not be more different than Sutton.

If you've ever driven through central Nebraska on Interstate-80, it's corn as far as the eye can see. Spring is planting season, and the prairie, unlike the days of the pioneers, becomes a monochrome green. (It's still beautiful). Summer is when the center pivots pump so much Ogallala water into the air that a dry prairie summer starts to feel like a humid swamp. Fall brings the harvest, and Nebraska's civic religion: college football. (We're not the Cornhuskers for nothing). In the winter, we wait for the cycle to begin anew.

But that's where the distinction ends. In almost every other way, St. Francisville is a carbon copy of Sutton and thousands of other small towns across rural America.

I fondly tell people I meet about the corn, farms, small town life, the sneaking around to drink beer, enjoying the occasional dip of chewing tobacco, and other fine things that come with being a teenage boy. But, if I'm honest with myself, that's not the truth.

I hated growing up in my small town in south-central Nebraska.

I hated the small talk, the old ladies asking about my great-uncles who I didn't even know very well, the odd town traditions I didn't fully understand, and the general lack of cosmopolitanism.

I hated the oppressive social climate, the ostracism, the lack of privacy, the way bookish kids like me were gently laughed at and considered weird, and I hated the corn. 

Yes, I hated that damn corn, and what it represented to our town.

I hated that as an able-bodied male, I was expected to go out for football, basketball, and track. I hated that the expectation was for me to explain why I didn't want to participate in an activity, rather than why I should be allowed entry into a club or team.

I hated that people were quick to ask "what's wrong?" when I just wanted to be left alone. I hated that the town response to tragedy and suffering was to suffocate the afflicted family with attention. And I hated the idea that my business was everyone's business, and everyone's business my business.

I was a nerdy, fiendishly independent teenager, and I wanted to be left to my own devices so I could build a life of my own. (Sound familiar, Rod?)

And at 18 I went to college without even bothering to say goodbye. I was thrilled to be out, even if I was only going 70 miles down the road. Good riddance, I thought, and I didn't plan on ever coming back. The summer after my freshman year, in a fit of obstinance, I refused to move home, even though none of my college friends were staying in town.

But then my Grandma died.

In Sutton, you're often described as the "Green boy" or "so and so's grandkid". I'd like to think it's because we're a town of Germans and Vikings and it's an amazingly unique heritage thing, but it's not. We're just like most other rural places: by and large, there's no such thing as an autonomous individual in a small town. You're part of the web of tightly woven relationships, some blood, some not, that hold together a rural community. And people identify you as such.

For me, that was as Doris' grandson (to the old people in town) and Jane's boy (to the adults my Mom's age). The nice old ladies told me stories about my Grandma when she was in school in the 1940s. My Mom's friends talked about how social she was, how much she loved sports, and about how she went and did exciting things outside of town after high school.

And so when my Grandma died, I assumed my main connection to Sutton was gone with her. My parents had moved there to be closer to her, and surely they'd eventually move somewhere better suited for my Dad's job (which, sure enough, they soon would.) So what was left of my tie to that little small town in the middle of a corn field in the middle of the prairie?

Everything, it turns out. I've tried to forget the grudges, the painful memories, the resentments I allowed to fester in my heart for so long. I've tried to simply move on from the little town that defined my life for what felt like such a long time. 

But every time I try, I realize how much of a selfish ass I really am.

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.

The behavior that drove me mad was the small town version of love. The moms working two jobs while shuttling around kids to activities and sports. The way pretty much any adult in town could discipline a kid and it'd be respected. The fact that to this day I could walk into the town bakery and talk for three hours with an old person about whatever I'd like, and they'd listen - and care. That's love, and while they'd probably tell me to shape up and be a better man, that's love too. 

And I'm not quite sure I fully recognized that until I read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. So thank you, Ruthie. Thank you. And God bless you.