The “canon” of literature is littered with characters leaving home for one reason or another. Epic stories and poems have been written about taking leave and similarly, the complicated journey of returning home. One of the oldest of these stories is The Odyssey by Homer and the main character, Odysseus, journeys home for ten years after fighting the Trojan War.
There’s the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, who demands his inheritance and spends a few years in wild living before returning home to be greeted by his father with open arms.
Robert Frost, in his poem The Death of the Hired Man, tells us “home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” Even lighter entertainment, like The Wizard of Oz is a story about leaving home and the quest to return, if only in a dream.
We are born somewhere, we leave, and maybe we return.
The “granddaddy” of “going home literature” would be Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel You Can’t Go Home Again. I’ve not read it; I dipped my toe in the pool of Thomas Wolfe’s writing with Of Time and The River and I didn’t get very far. Wolfe often wrote autobiographically about the place he called “home” (Asheville, North Carolina) and what happened after he left. Popular and widely read during his brief thirty-eight years, his fiction is now less popular than such contemporaries as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.
When I first started blogging about returning to my “home town,” my friend Stephanie sent me a photocopied magazine article. I stuck it in a folder of things to read later and it sat in that folder for at least six months. I finally read it after unpacking here at home and it prompted me to order Rod Dreher’s book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming via my small town library’s “inter-library loan.” The library didn’t have a copy of the book, but it arrived in less than a week from a bigger library not far from here.
It’s not a difficult book to read. It’s sad. Ruthie Leming, the author’s sister, dies at the end.
The book was published approximately eighteen months after Ruthie’s death and it must have been difficult to write. Grief is not a linear emotions; wells of sadness, anger, and despair often rise up within a person years after the grievous event. We live in a culture that tries to tamp down and compartmentalize emotions; it’s easier if grief departs quickly after two company-paid bereavement days and a few refills of Prozac. There are societal limits to grief; we are taught to box the emotion up and put it back on the shelf. It’s easy, right?
At the end of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher writes:
“Never would I have imagined that I would spend the morning of my little sister’s forty-third birthday in the graveyard, watching workmen heave her tombstone into place. But nobody ever thinks about these things when they’re young. Nobody thinks about limits, and how much we need each other. But if you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a wife and mother, a good woman in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?
The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it will assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.
Only your family and your community can do that.”*
Rod Dreher may not join the canon of authors outlined earlier in my post, but his book is provocative. This shattering life event, his sister’s death, caused him to uproot his family and move home to St. Francisville, Louisiana. He came back to the place he left. He continues to write while living in the middle of these pools of familial and community grief.
I’m thinking it’s not very easy but it might be necessary.
(*This quotation was taken from page 267 of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher was published by Grand Central Publishing on April 9, 2013.)