A great deal has already been written about Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (including William Doino’s review). I only have two short comments to add to the discussion. The first grows out of a conversation I had with a bookshop owner several weeks ago. On learning of my Kentucky roots, he observed, “I’ve always felt the South has produced the greatest American storytellers because it produces the greatest listeners in the country.” Dreher’s writing in Little Way offers readers the chance to be one of these great listeners. Even after five years as a regular reader of Dreher’s blog, I’ve never heard his voice sound so uniquely and clearly. The effect, most of the time, is the feeling that you’re sitting across a kitchen table, or on some humid front porch, listening to him tell you this story. So maybe the trick of Southern storytelling isn’t just that the author listens, but trusts the reader to listen with just as much focus and delight.
I also had the good fortune to finish Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra after a four-month hiatus before picking up Little Way. Massie’s work is at once a biography of the last Russian tsar and his family and a history of the years leading into the 1917 revolution. From the moment of Nicholas’ abdication, however, it transforms into a work almost of a kind with the story Dreher tells about his sister: the tsar and his family meet the new and ultimate crisis of their lives with a preternatural calmness, faith, and even generosity. Still, they differ from Ruthie Leming. There are no stories of this love and grace emanating outward at age five; before the abdication Nicholas and Alexandra frequently (and rightly) come across as unsuited to their positions and power.
This difference lets us see something more: that despite a host of errors and sins, a love for others, a desire to do what is necessary for those others and the Russian people (even when it leads, ultimately, to their own deaths), and a simple, unwavering faith manage to spring from them. One can imagine the figures Massie draws bending to tell their children, as Dreher shows his sister doing, “We’re not going to be mad at God. Okay?”
Finding similarities between the two wasn’t entirely surprising. Last summer, while at work on Little Way, Dreher blogged about the effect Nicholas and Alexandra had on him and his gradual understanding of the role, as passion-bearers, the Romanovs fulfill for some Russian Orthodox. These are very different works and very different stories, but Massie’s book offers a complement to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming for those who are interested in finding one. Tendrils of conversation are already growing between them.