Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen

Holt Paperbacks, 2009

Sometimes I wonder what authors are really like. There are some pretty kooky people out there, and some of my favorite books must be written by a few of them. But this question never came up when I read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. A Professor of English Literature, Rhoda Janzen bares her soul in her writing, giving me an exact portrait of the person she is. This introspective 2009 novel (as the cover tells us) is a memoir of going home. Which happens to be a Mennonite family. While reading the book I was often reminded that the cause of this upheaval was the break-up of Janzen’s marriage, when her husband left her for Bob from  To pick up the pieces of her life, the renegade Mennonite heads home and reconnects with values she had never given a chance. As she notes, sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward.

With a healthy dose of sarcasm, Janzen explains what it was like to grow up in a Mennonite home and shows us how she ended up in her position. Though I was constantly shocked at the brutally honest and sometimes-disrespectful description of her family, I understood why it was in the book. This is certainly a novel that either hits home or totally drops the ball, and for me, it hit home. Though the book is brimming with Janzen’s wonderful sense of humor, it has an undercurrent of self-exploration and a need to understand and grow. While making fun of the traditions she grew up with, we get the sense that she honors them at the same time. And while poking fun at an absurd mother, we know that she is very dear to the writer.

While I loved every bit of this story, I noticed that there were some that didn’t.  Coming from a modern-Mennonite family I understood many of the cultural references, but some felt they didn’t get a sense of what it is like to be a Mennonite. Knowing a bit about the subject, I can at least say that the Mennonite culture can vary greatly from family to family. Many found Janzen’s snarky attitude a bit much, along with her tongue-in-cheek humor and penchant for big words. And in case you forgot, her husband left her for Bob, from, (she does repeat it a bit too much.) The scattered approach to story-telling Janzen displays is not usually my favorite, but it works for this book. It’s the story of her life, and it’s not always a nice and tidy retelling.

As Janzen comes to terms with her past and her potential future, we understand the soul-searching that has occurred for her to come to this position. Though she broke free from her roots in her youth, she came home to find herself again, to be herself, and be happy. I appreciated the rational approach she took on this journey, but most of all the honesty she shared. By writing this book she was able to find peace, and we are able to see the evolution on the pages. Janzen grew up with a religion that (like in many cases) was forced upon her, and after taking a step back, gaining some breathing room, she finally became able to find real meaning in faith.


6 responses

  1. Interesting perspective! I remember Auntie Elfie reading the book and I think she said that she didn’t enjoy it so much. Hmmm…I wonder if I would!? Maybe in the future I’ll choose this book to read to see if I can relate at all.

    • Wrong! My mom really liked it! But it’s like Kaite said – she (my mother) recommended it to a few other people, and none of them enjoyed it as much as her. A few who hadn’t grown up in the Mennonite tradition actually felt offended on our collective behalf, because they took it to mean the author didn’t respect her upbringing (I’ve read excerpts, though, and I don’t think this is actually the case! There’s a definite love there).

  2. I’d definitely be careful in recommending this one. You have to have a pretty healthy sense of humour and also be open to the ideas the author touches on. Some people won’t understand her journey, but others will. Give it a shot though, I loved it!

  3. Pingback: The Best and Worst of 2012 | A Novel Thing

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