Book Review: Rod Dreher's How Dante Can Save Your Life
Sometimes a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment.
That’s what happened to Rod Dreher in the summer of 2013. Not much of a poetry fan, Dreher was killing time one day, browsing the poetry section of a book store when he pulled Dante from the shelf and began to thumb through it. Surprisingly, in the verses of Dante, Dreher found his own feelings of exile, entrapment, confusion, depression, and anxiety expressed. Thus began a pilgrimage that would take Dreher through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, and would bring him out of the dark wood of torment to a place of spiritual and physical healing.
Growing up in the small, rural town of Starhill, Louisiana, Dreher never felt like he fit in--in the town or in his own family. A bookish intellectual, he embraced city life, finding success as a writer in places like DC and New York. He moved away, but he looked back. Often. Longing for the love and approval of his family back home, especially after he got married and started a family of his own.
In 2010 his sister, a life-long Starhill resident, was diagnosed with cancer, quickly deteriorated, and died nineteen months later. Dreher was overwhelmed with the way his hometown community rallied around his sister and family, providing monetary and emotional support. He realized that the same small-town community bonds that had left him feeling trapped and confined as a teenager were the same bonds that had carried his family through this terrible ordeal. And he longed for his young family to be rooted in this same community and to know this kind of love for themselves.
And so the city boy, the exile, returned home in 2011, full of hope and expectation. He began writing a memoir of his experience, ultimately called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, that ended on a note of hope and the possibility of redemption. But before that book had even been printed, the hope had died. He discovered that his sister’s death had changed nothing. In fact, it seemed to have even more deeply engrained into his family the rejection and alienation that had originally led him out of Starhill. But he had just moved his wife and children across the country—again—and he was determined to avoid uprooting them. So, he stayed, and he suffered.
His health deteriorated greatly, and he battled depression and anger. The crushing pain of being a stranger in his own family—unaccepted, misunderstood, unloved—threatened to fully destroy him, emotionally and physically. He fought the pain, through his church, his doctor, and his therapist. But it wasn’t until he opened the pages of Dante, that a way out of his suffering presented itself. Here he quite unexpectedly found a “practical guide to life, one that promises rescue, restoration, and freedom.” This was no pleasure read or academic exploration. Dreher came to Dante “as a beggar. A lost soul. A drowning man.” He needed nothing short of salvation. And Dante did not disappoint.
Dreher has crafted a wonderfully unique book, part literary criticism, part spiritual autobiography—part guide to how to read literature and part guide to how be the hero of your own life. Dreher is not a literary scholar and approaches his discussion of Dante’s work less like an academic and more like someone introducing you to his best friend, thus making Dante's work accessible. And yet Dreher has done his homework. There is plenty here for an academic to get excited about too.
But the discussion is never purely academic. It’s personal. The book is about Dreher’s journey toward healing, and his discussion of Dante is always in terms of what Dante taught him about himself. For Dreher, The Divine Comedy is “a fantasy about a lost man who finds his way back to life after walking through the pits of hell, climbing up the mountains of purgatory, and ascending to the heights of heaven. But it’s really a story about real life and the incredible journey of our lives, yours and mine.”
Dreher finds himself in the pages of Dante. Each canto teaches him something new, gives him some new insight into the nature of his suffering, and even ultimately shows him what the true source of his suffering is. And from that place of self-knowledge, he is finally able to move toward healing.
His priest and his therapist both tried to show him the way forward, but it was Dante who finally opened his eyes. And that is the power of literature. In The Divine Comedy, Dante’s guide is not a priest, but a poet. Turns out Dreher needed a poet as his guide too.
Sometimes a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment. That’s what happened to me when I opened Dreher’s beautiful new book. So much so that I was tempted to write a review about how reading Dreher reading Dante saved my life. I expected to love the book because I love Dante and I wanted to understand his work better. But I had not expected that in the pages of Dreher’s book (just like Dreher had not expected of Dante’s book) that I would find my own story. The human condition, the journey of the soul—just like the literature that speaks of it—is universal. Even when the details differ, the story of the struggle to move from suffering to healing and the longing for redemption is the story of every life.
Dreher chose Dante as his guide to understanding his own spiritual journey. But in this book, Dreher can in turn be our guide, teaching us not only how to think about Dante, but teaching us how to interpret the story of our own lives. This book, quite unexpectedly, gave me hope about my own suffering and showed me a way forward, at the same time that it affirmed and deepened my love of literature. It can do that for you too. I hope that this book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment.
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