American Conservative senior editor Dreher (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, 2013) shares his search for his family’s acceptance, looking for answers from his church, his therapist, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The author likens his decision to return with his wife and children to his home in the Louisiana parish of West Feliciana as the return of a prodigal son. Reading Dante, canto by canto, helped him find the way to reconnect. He never took to his father’s traditions of hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities; the author was bookish and lived in his own world. He left for a career in journalism far from home—New York, Texas, Washington, D.C.—but the visits home, short and cool, are his real story. His conversion to Catholicism and eventually Orthodox Christianity expanded the gulf (“the family has always been Methodist”). Dreher mostly avoids preaching or navel-gazing, but he seems to be butting his head against a wall trying to get his family to change. His description of the death of his sister is poignant, and that event prompted him and his wife to return home to help her children. Though their help was not wanted, it was accepted begrudgingly. His descriptions of Southerners’ deep attachment to the land and family are enlightening, and the author allows readers to see how his family felt he had forsaken them. The stress of homecoming caused chronic illness, and this book is his fight for resolution. A serendipitous selection of Dante in the bookshop and sessions with his therapist and priest began his reconciliation.
As a well-written chronicle of choice between the “success” of big cities and life in the far simpler world of old traditions and deep family ties, the book is both heartwarming and frustrating—certainly more confessional memoir than guide to Dante (a fact the author readily admits).