By Jonathon Van Maren
Since the last election cycle, the cultural taste-makers have suddenly discovered an interest in that most lionized and reviled phenomenon of American life, the small town. Who lives there? What drives them? What are their lives like? And of course, dozens of answers have been forthcoming, all of them different, some of them drastically so. One answer can be found in Rod Dreher’s gripping 2013 memoir of his sister’s death from cancer, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.
Dreher is well-known to those of us in conservative circles as a traditionalist writer, one who constantly examines and beautifully articulates the need for Christian community, deep cultural roots, the love of family, and a simplicity that demands occasionally exiting the buzzing cocoon that urban modernity has constructed around us to reconnect with the things that matter. He blogs almost daily over at The American Conservative, and his insights are fascinating and often illuminating. His raw honesty is almost jarring, occasionally leaving you with the feeling that you’ve just accidentally stumbled over a secret you have no right to know.
It is that raw honesty that defines the Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Dreher, the oldest of two children, explains how his sister’s struggle with and death from cancer drew him back to the small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, where he’d grown up. After decades away, the simple faith of many in the community, his sister’s beautiful legacy and dignity in the face of cancer’s devastation, and the realization that St. Francisville was his hometown, too, brought Dreher and his own family to Louisiana to reconnect with his roots and his heritage.
It is not an uncomplicated story. Dreher starts off describing his childhood and that of his sister Ruthie, tramping about in the woods, living with the simplicity that often defines small town culture. As teenagers, driving down to the nearby river bank to hang out was a favorite activity in St. Francisville, and one that worried parents. Much of what Dreher describes resonates with me. It was the same in the rural area where I grew up: Just down the road and over the dyke from our house was the perfect place to build a fire, and if the river was low enough, you could drive a pickup truck through the shallows and park on the sandbar. Those were the nights memories are made of, with the river burbling by and a crackling fire throwing up sparks that ascended into the sky and turned into white stars, with a cold back and a hot face and the delicious breeze coming off the water that splashed the rocks every now and again just to remind us that it was there. Everything seemed quite simple.
But it was the simplicity of the small town that also eventually drove Dreher away for a time. In St. Francisville, he writes, there was only one definition of masculinity. That definition had a lot to do with athletic prowess, hunting, and eminently practical career choices. Dreher, like myself, was largely disinterested in sports. He loved writing and preferred books to hunting. He was interested in things far outside the borders of the Shire, and as such, found himself a rather bewildering figure to many in his community. This is a scenario that will resonate with those who find that their interests and skills do not line up with a particular stereotype of small town machismo, where close ties sometimes result in closed minds, and curiosity about new things is mistaken for a rejection of old things. It is a bit ironic that Dreher has emerged as one of the most eloquent defenders of small town culture (that is, when such communities are defined by Christian values.) Sometimes you must leave the Shire in order to defend it—and miss it. There and back again.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is also an invaluable addition to a growing body of work analyzing small towns from a variety of perspectives. J.D. Vance’s overnight sensation Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis describes his life growing up in a deeply dysfunctional community and family in the Midwest, while still celebrating the deep love that existed and the visceral, violent loyalty people often felt for each other and for their dying culture. Vance’s descriptions of this loyalty often seems schizophrenic, considering that it jostles for room on the pages with anecdotes of alcohol-fueled domestic abuse and what Vance calls the near “immunity” to hard work found in many of the young men. The once-proud culture of the Scots-Irish hillbillies has been coming apart at the seams for more than a generation, producing an angry and disillusioned group of men and women who often seem incapable of taking responsibility for their own fate. His memoir could scarcely be more different than Dreher’s story.
Similarly, Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review attracted fire from all sides after writing a scathingly critical column on the laziness, drug addiction, adultery and promiscuity prevalent in parts of the “white working class” which has received so much lionization since it fueled the rise of Donald Trump, the so-called “blue-collar billionaire.” Williamson hits on many of the same themes as Vance, pointing out that many small towns (especially in the so-called “Rust Belt”) have indeed been left behind, but that this does not excuse the degraded lifestyles that many of the remaining occupants choose to live. This has resulted in a broken and dysfunctional family culture of perennial divorce that spawns many of the other problems that now exist. No politician is going to fix these things, Williamson notes. Those things can only be fixed by people taking responsibility for their own relationships and behavior. Vance concurs with this thesis, and his own journey proves that it is not an impossible task.
The term “small town,” with all the Norman Rockwell nostalgia the label conjures, is in some ways no longer precise enough to be useful. On one hand, we have the small town Dreher is describing with all its charms and flaws in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, one that is bound together by a shared culture, family ties, and a fierce faith accompanied by church attendance. On the other hand, you have a small-town culture that still maintains vestiges of its former glory—as J.D. Vance describes, a fierce loyalty to family and a cultural compulsion to defend the women of the family, for example—but has abandoned Christianity in nearly everything but name.
People still say they’re Christian, because their roots are Christian and they’re embarrassed to say they don’t go to church, says Vance. But they make little attempt to live a Christian lifestyle or attend church or build thriving Christian communities, and as such the Judeo-Christian heritage is more background noise than anything else. With the collapse of church attendance, of course, came the evaporation of the social structures and assistance that comes with such communities, leaving people detached from their roots and with nowhere to turn. It was precisely the existence of such communities and networks that drew Dreher back to St. Francisville. But in small towns without these networks, people turned to the government for help—and many took Trump’s promises that he would be “their man” at face value. As Williamson acidly points out, treating a politician like a savior is the furthest thing from conservative.
Art critics have even noticed the emergence of this conflicted view of small towns in country music, the most stereotypical avenue of small town storytelling. Kacey Musgraves, for example, pens lyrics that could accompany Vance’s books as a soundtrack. On the one hand, she writes in “This Town,” her community was:
Too small to be lying
Way too small to cheat
Way too small for secrets
Cause they’re way too hard to keep
Cause somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin
And somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband
And somebody’s daughter knows somebody’s brother
And around here, we all look out for each other
You’ll end up in the paper, wreck your family name
What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game
We only got one sheriff, but we all know how to keep the peace
Aw, and don’t you forget it, as big as we’re getting
This town’s too small to be mean
Those lines seem to describe much of what Dreher writes, as well as the vestiges of community and family pride described by Vance. It is in keeping with the nostalgic genre of story-tellers like Alan Jackson, who lionized the men he grew up around in “Small Town Southern Man” and mourned the loss of the mom-and-pop grocery stores and close community ties in “The Little Man.” But Musgraves has a much darker description of dysfunction and cultural collapse in “Merry-Go-Round”:
If you ain’t got two kids by 21,
You’re probably gonna die alone.
Least that’s what tradition told you.
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe,
Come Sunday morning, you best be there in the front row like you’re supposed to.
Same hurt in every heart.
Same trailer, different park.
Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay.
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane [marijuana].
Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.
Mary, Mary quite contrary.
We get bored, so, we get married
Just like dust, we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go ’round and ’round and ’round we go
Where it stops nobody knows and it isn’t slowin’ down.
This merry go ’round.
As we look closer, we see that the American small towns which have preserved thriving cultures are, almost inevitably, of a Christian character. Churches are the throbbing heart of these places, pumping lifeblood out through a network that sustains the community, providing a fertile ground for dating and friendships with community events and Sunday services, creating social assistance networks for those who have fallen on hard times and need the assistance of fellow neighbors and congregants, and providing a shared system of values that can hold people together. Without these networks, people are often one layoff away from financial ruin—and there is no church community or functional family standing between them and the need for government assistance.
Churches also cultivate the personal values necessary to live a happy and fulfilled life. They discourage drug use and drunkenness. They discourage promiscuity and encourage marriage, and provide a community context in which marriages and family can flourish. Hard work and generous giving are expected, so that those who need it can be supported by their neighbors. People are people, of course, and people sin and stray and fail. But churches offer up something to strive towards, and provide a community to facilitate that striving.
These things are obviously not uncomplicated. Even when small town communities are not plagued with drug addiction and divorce epidemics and indolence, as Dreher writes, minds incurious about anything going on outside narrow borders of the world they live in can still make these otherwise wonderful people occasionally maddening. None of the social ills and self-inflicted problems Vance describes are confined to the towns without thriving communities. But Christian communities, it seems, can still go a long way towards creating the type of culture in which families can thrive.
This is essential to remember as a new political paradigm emerges in which broad swathes of both the Left and Right increasingly hail political figures as the solutions to their problems. The simple fact is that we have to care for and nourish our own families and our own communities and our own neighbors. The government can’t make anyone quit drugs, or stop drinking, or remain faithful to their spouse, or pay attention to their children, or spend their money responsibly, or invest in a church community. That’s up to us. When we do, we build and rebuild culture—and that transcends any feeble political solution.