Despite small rebellions, Rhoda Janzen stayed close to the Mennonite world she was raised in. That is, until she went to graduate school. At that point, too many of her social, philosophical and spiritual ideas were challenged, causing her life to become more secular. But she never severed ties with her family or the Mennonite community, so when crisis struck in the form of a divorce followed by a debilitating car accident, she was welcomed home with open arms. Her memoir, MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS, centers on that homecoming but also celebrates a religious community more vibrant and diverse than most people realize.
Janzen may have been primed for the secular world unwittingly by her parents, both of whom were college educated (something very unusual for Mennonites). She and her three siblings were sent to public school and were allowed some spiritual and intellectual freedoms by their thoughtful yet conservative parents. Though her parents may have been inwardly disappointed by her choices to become a poet/professor and to marry the emotionally uneven Nick, they wanted her to be happy and were kindhearted when her turbulent marriage fell apart. In her early 40s, Janzen found herself back in her parents’ home, enveloped in a life of German folk songs, strudel, borscht, traditional handicrafts and pious religious beliefs.
With biting humor and unflinching honesty, Janzen chronicles her divorce (the verbally abusive Nick left her for Bob from Gay.com) and shares childhood adventures and misadventures growing up Mennonite. And although it’s Janzen’s memoir, the star of the book is quite often her mother, Mary. Mary is funny, warm, and much sassier and worldlier than readers would ever expect. Janzen is tender towards her parents and Mennonite “oldsters” in general, nicely balancing out the tale of marital woe and strife.
MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS moves back and forth in time from Janzen's childhood to her current life. Her relationships with academia, religion, siblings, her ethnic heritage, and more are explored sharply --- and, at times, too briefly --- and with an interesting perspective and voice. Mennonite life (at least Janzen's Mennonite life) is brought into sharp relief, and all the gender inequalities, dogma and expectations are contrasted with moments of touching warmth, hilarity and unconditional love.
From “the top five shame-based foods for Mennonite youth lunches” to living with a bipolar spouse, from the practice of marrying first cousins to the joy of racquetball, MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS is pleasantly all over the place. Janzen's style is often conversational, and she masterfully turns phrases, finding the humor in pain and sorrow and the sacred in the ordinary.
While sorting through the wreckage of 15 years married to Nick and recovering from the car accident, Janzen is sorting through her relationship to the Mennonite Church. Her memoir is emotional but never sappy, nostalgic but rarely romantic. Janzen is likable, smart, funny and humble. She is unapologetic in her quest to balance out the best of the Mennonite world with the best of the secular world. Readers will be charmed by this quirky, powerful and unique tale of family, acceptance, identity and belief.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 7, 2011