Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen has a Ph.D., teaches at a college, and has been the University of California Poet Laureate, but when her life fell apart, she returned home to her parents and a simpler life in their Mennonite family in order to put herself back together. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is her memoir, the story of her return home.

Janzen admits she should have left her husband years before her marriage ended. He was bipolar, and she lived with his depression, changing herself to meet his demands. She should have left when he told her he didn't care what happened to her. Instead, Nick left her when he met a guy named Bob on The same week, she was hit head-on by a drunk driver. At 43, she had broken bones, broken ribs, a broken marriage and life. She went home to California, to the Mennonites.

By this time in her life, her father had retired as head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States (the Mennonite equivalent of the pope.) Her mother was a nurse, a serene woman who accepted her rebellious daughter, a warm woman who always found the bright side in life.

Rhoda Janzen chronicles the story of her early life in a Mennonite home, including stories of embarrassment in the dress she wore to school, and the school lunches she carried. Even in those early years, she yearned for a glamorous life outside of the Mennonite lifestyle. Her education and her marriage moved her farther away from that life. But, she admits to the peacefulness in the harmony and music of the Mennonite life, a world that recognizes simplicity, home cooked food, prayer, and peace, a life of service. It takes a while, but she claims that life as her heritage.

Janzen spends quite a bit of time in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress analyzing her marriage. That aspect of the book becomes a little tedious, but it's natural for her to go into detail, with the length of the marriage, and the hurt she suffered. On the other hand, the story of her recuperation at her parents' home is fascinating. Most of us know little about the Mennonites, and she includes a humorous chapter examining the history of the sect, including the difference between Mennonites and the Amish.

In the end, Janzen finds peace with her past, and her life. Her return home was restorative. She comes to terms with the destruction of her marriage. Her sister and friends help her to move on. But, it's her mother, and the gentleness of the Mennonites themselves, that seem to bring her to acceptance. It's a story I'd recommend to book groups interested in memoirs. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is Rhoda Janzen's memoir, but it's also an acknowledgement that she might have missed something growing up as a Mennonite, something invaluable to adult life.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen. Henry Holt & Company, ©2009. ISBN 9780805089257 (hardcover), 256p.


SmallWorld at Home said...

This sounds really interesting! Thanks for the great review!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, SmallWorld at Home. Thanks for stopping by!

bermudaonion said...

I'm a memoir junkie so this looks good to me!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sounds like she was working out some of her thoughts/regrets on paper and analyzing them. That could get a little old, but the thought of finding out a bit more about the Mennonite culture sounds like it will make it worth it.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

It's a title I passed on to our memoir book club, Bermudaonion. Enjoy!

Lesa said...

I think that's what happened to me, Elizabeth. I enjoyed the Mennonite parts of the book much more than the sections in which she worked out her marriage issues.

Mary said...

I can hardly wait to get a copy and read it. I went to HS and College with Rhoda and at one time was one of only two students in a class with her. I learned a lot from her. She is an amazing person with great intelligence and great emotional depth. (and personally, I wonder how much, if any of the college experience will get into the book--wild times for those of us non Mennonites at a Mennonite College!) Her family is the best and as down to earth and real as they come.



Lesa said...

Terrific, Mary! I think you're really going to enjoy the book since you know Rhoda's family. Her parents seem so terrific in the book. There isn't a great deal of that college experience in this book, but I think you'll like it.

Mary said...

Okay--read the book. A quick read. Was present and accounted for with the early mini's and the award ceremony at her small and "insufficient" Mennonite College that I also attended. She changed the names of her siblings and father. She changed the name of the Senior Living Home. Some of this explains her clothing sense and protection of small potatoes (don't ask--a gutter was involved as well as a lot of tears). She does make a mean omelet from left over veggies, however. Sorry to hear about the scarring on the legs as she did some modeling in the 1980's and should have a great story about pictures of her legs. I was a bit uncomfortable with the description of the professors at the end as I have my guesses and was thrilled to know that mutual friends remained unmarried even though they were beautiful. Such is life. I am unsure as to why the Old Mennonite cap is hanging off of the letter as Mennonite Brethren don't where the hat and she was not OM. Symbolic perhaps, but a stretch. I will place next to my signed edition of River of Glass in the Mennonite section of my bookshelf. (also including "Pilgrim Aflame", "The Last Western" and "Miracle of Dialogue" which while it is not written by a Mennonite was a core book and the basis for the title of "Will and Grace." Another tale for another day.)
I await the second book that will start off, no doubt as a contradiction to her first chapter in this one with her double mastectomy in the beginning of the year and continue on with her journey thus far. It should be a memorable read where everything turns out to "be okay."

Lesa said...

Mary, It sounds as if the actual story could be even more fascinating, but I can certainly understand why she changed names, and protected people. Yes, that next book should be interesting.

Thanks for your followup comments!

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