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Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Jessica Baldanzi reviews Janzen’s forthcoming memoir, which depicts with “wit and spirit” Janzen’s recovery from a traumatic divorce and her adult return, for an extended visit, to the close-knit, conformist Mennonite home and community in which she grew up.

Rhoda Janzen. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home . New

York: Henry Holt. [forthcoming October 2009]. Pp. 256. $22.

This is not your mother’s Mennonite memoir. The jacket sports a plummeting conservative Mennonite head covering, apparently tossed off by the woman dancing in the upper right corner. We can only see her sashaying skirt, bare legs, and flirty heels, but she’s clearly having way too much fun to be on the cover of a traditional Mennonite memoir: a family history of hardship and privation or a tale of hard-won spiritual recovery.

Clearly, the publishers plan to market this book as “Chick Lit,” and it will likely be successful in that genre. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is simply a great read, simultaneously funny, wrenching, and—always crucial to Chick Lit—heartwarming. Janzen’s memoir, however, far exceeds the standard fluff that characterizes this genre. Throughout the book, Janzen’s intense philosophical musings about the purpose and significance of life itself, although carefully interspersed with boxed questions and bulleted lists for a visually breezy format, carry the work well beyond the Chick Lit market and into the ranks of more lasting and powerful memoirs for readers of either gender.

For instance, I don’t ever recall reading a Chick Lit book on a lazy summer day and wishing I had my dictionary in my beach bag. “But by and large most of our injurious actions do not break the law,” muses Janzen about a brother-in-law whose family spoke ill of him for committing suicide. “No, most of them create the kinds of hurt that are legal: deception, betrayals, infidelities. And since even the most virtuous among us displays this adiaphorous morality, what if we agreed just to let people be who they are, since we can’t change them anyway?”

Turns out it wouldn’t have been worth risking sand in the spine of my dictionary anyway—“adiaphorous ,” which means doing neither good nor harm, isn’t even in my edition of Webster’s Collegiate. These downright scholarly digressions at first made me a bit concerned for the book’s marketability. But Janzen not only keeps her musings accessible, she keeps herself accessible as a narrator, repeatedly poking fun at her own bookishness. To illustrate the contrast between her and her sister-in-law, for instance, she contrasts the t-shirt of this cosmetics-selling relative—“ASK ME HOW TO COVER YOUR BLEMISH”—with her own, which reads, “I AM THE GRAMMARIAN ABOUT WHOM YOUR MOTHER WARNED YOU.”

Repeatedly, humor serves as the transitional glue that holds the book’s seemingly disparate elements together. And while the humor might at first seem light, it also helps Janzen recount her recovery from a staggering series of tragedies—botched surgery, a severe car accident, an abusive husband, and divorce—without tugging readers into the abyss with her.

Part of what keeps the book afloat is that Janzen has made it to the other side—and here’s where the “Mennonite” part of the title comes in. Janzen engages in affectionate, though near-constant critique and questioning of her heritage, from Mennonites’ penchant for extreme thriftiness—“Whenever my parents used a coupon to procure something, they felt 100 percent committed to liking it”—to the replacement of dancing with “liturgical movement,” which “gave the older Mennonites bilious indigestion.” “I hope it’s clear by now that the Mennonites wouldn’t want me,” one chapter even begins. Yet she returns to her family, and the Mennonite community she grew up in, to heal—and although her life is far from resolved at the end of the book, she does seem to be at home.

In short, unless it falls prey to the stripped-down marketing budgets of a flailing publishing industry, this book is going to be huge, as the gushing back-jacket blurb from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the blockbuster memoir Eat, Pray, Love, suggests. But some Mennonite readers, depending on their ancestry, might take issue with Janzen’s characterization of their faith. A second blurb, by memoirist Cynthia Kaplan, states of Janzen, “If it weren’t for the weird Mennonite food, I would like very much to be her friend.” Janzen is a Russian Mennonite, and the book is rife with descriptions of borscht, zwiebach, and platz, all amusing examples of “lunches of shame” that she and her siblings brought with them to school, to their dismay, in the face of peers with more trendy processed lunches.

This example speaks a language that readers from a range of backgrounds are likely to understand. (The lunch of shame in my East Coast, decidedly non-Mennonite youth was creamed smoked herring, which in addition to looking disgusting, gave my brother and me the added, long-lasting benefit of fish breath.) It also, however, provides a representation of Mennonites with which the Swiss factions might quibble. Similar arguments might arise in response to the irreverent appendix in the back of the book entitled “Mennonite History Primer,” which amusingly details the journey of Russian Mennonites, but omits the history of Swiss Mennonites, most of whom haven’t an inkling of how to cook borscht—although many have their own time-honored traditions in the culinary torture of innocent vegetables. Some readers might also feel misrepresented by Janzen’s portrayal of the more conservative branches of Mennonite faith as characteristic of all Mennonites. “Mennonites don’t do movement,” she states at one point, although my Goshen College students who have become talented devotees of the campus Latin Dance club would beg to differ.

Overall, however, Janzen ends up nurtured by her family and community at the end of the book, creating a positive impression of Mennonite culture which any member would have trouble criticizing. Janzen’s only justified potential critics will be scared off by the boxed text on the first page: “Yes, I think ‘Stinky’ is a cute name for a withered arm!” “No, I’d prefer to name my withered arm something with a little more dignity, such as Reynaldo.” Once this “quiz” weeds out the humorless readers, the rest of us, regardless of background, are left to revel in Janzen’s irrepressible—and more important, beautifully articulate—wit and spirit.

About the Author

Jessica Baldanzi

Jessica Baldanzi is Assistant Professor of English at Goshen College, having earned a PhD in English from Indiana University in 2003. She has published on topics from Jean Toomer to the television series The Sopranos , and teaches courses on writing, American literature, and the Graphic Novel.