A writer rediscovers the power of small-town living

Rod Dreher grew up in St. Francisville, La., a town of about 1,700 people 30 minutes northwest of Baton Rouge. He left for college and then lived in Washington, New York, Miami, Dallas and Philadelphia, working as a writer for various magazines, a newspaper and a foundation.

His younger sister, Ruthie, went to LSU, returned to St. Francisville as a middle-school teacher and married an Iraq war veteran who worked as a fireman. On Feb. 22, 2010, Ruthie, who was 40 then, was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. She told her brother that she was afraid that her three young girls would be angry with God for taking her from them: "We can't have anger," she told him. "Make sure nobody is angry at the doctors, either. They couldn't have caught it earlier."

The entire town rallied around her. There were cookouts to raise money for her medical care. Ruthie met a woman named Stephanie when they were both getting chemotherapy. Stephanie continued to accompany Ruthie to the hospital even after her own round of treatments was finished.

April 10, 2010, was officially Ruthie Leming Day in St. Francisville. More than half the town went to a fundraising concert. Somebody took a camper-trailer to the concert so Ruthie would have a place to rest and take oxygen.

Dreher, one of the country's most interesting bloggers, captured Ruthie's illness in real time. "It's so beautiful to see it's almost painful," he wrote the night of the concert, "and so unreal in its generosity that you think it must have been a movie."


As Ruthie's illness worsened, Dreher's grief would be mixed with something else. "The outpouring — an eruption, really — of goodness and charity from the people of our town has been quite simply stunning," he blogged. "The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe."

She died Sept. 15. More than 1,000 people signed the guest book at the funeral, Dreher reported. Mike, her husband who had wrenched his back trying to perform CPR on her, stood for hours by the open coffin as people filed past. Since Ruthie liked to go barefoot, the pallbearers took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and carried the coffin to the grave in bare feet.

During the wake, Dreher and his wife received an email informing them that the deal for a farmhouse they had hoped to rent in Bucks County, Pa., had fallen through. They were surprised as waves of relief swept over them.

Then a thought occurred. Maybe they should leave the Philadelphia area and move back to Louisiana. "Standing in Ruthie's kitchen the day after she died, laughing with all of Mike's friends who had surrounded him to hold him up ('We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other,' Mike later said), I thought, 'Even with all the sadness, there's no place else in the world I'd rather be.'"

They considered the practicalities. They wondered if they were experiencing a passing emotion from a traumatic event. To their great astonishment, they decided to make the move.

They wanted to be enmeshed in a tight community. They wanted to be around Ruthie's daughters, and they wanted their kids to be able to go deer hunting with Mike. They wanted to be where the family had been for five generations and participate in the rituals ranging from Mardi Gras to LSU football. They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.

They moved in just before Christmas. For the past many years, Ruthie and her mother had a tradition of going to a nearby cemetery on Christmas Eve to put candles on all the graves. This year, with Ruthie in that cemetery, her mother was too sad to do it. But, as she was driving by the cemetery that night, she noticed little flames dotting the graveyard.

She called Dreher, sobbing. "You've got to find out who did this for us. ... Whoever it is, they will never know what this meant to me. They will never, ever know."


It turns out that it was a neighbor named Susan Harvey Wymore, who learned that Ruthie's mother would be unable to light the cemetery and did it for her.

Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and is part of a communitarian conservative tradition that goes back to thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. Forty years ago, Kirk led one of the two great poles of conservatism. It existed in creative tension with the other great pole, Milton Friedman's free-market philosophy.

In recent decades, the communitarian conservatism has become less popular while the market conservatism dominates. But that doesn't make Kirk's insights into small towns, traditions and community any less true, as Rod Dreher so powerfully rediscovered.

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