If you were raised in a religious household, I think that you often spend much of your life living either in accord to what you were raised with, or in some tension with your tradition (whether you leave it altogether, join one that is similar but different, or decide to take an academic turn and spend your life studying it.)  Rhoda Janzen depicts this tension in her memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, an English professor, hit a nasty patch during midlife. She survived the aftereffects of a major surgery that was botched, only to have her husband leave her (for a man), get into a nasty wreck thanks to a  drunk driver that slams into her, and is then left with a mortgage she cannot pay.

So what does one do when such a thing happens? Well, you go home for a spell, and let the people that love you take care of you. Janzen’s family are rather well-educated Mennonites, her father is a theologian and major leader in the church, and her mother was a nurse. As Janzen goes back home and begins to re-explore her relationships with her family and her community, details about her life emerge in a non-linear manner, and she begins to heal.

A few things about the book. First of all, it is a non-linear read- she digresses a lot– some of it is a bit stream-of-consiousness. And  is not an all-about-Mennonites book. Her family happens to be Mennonites and Janzen has rejected her childhood faith, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Mennonite life/theology/etc. Her humor has a biting edge to it- although sometimes it is really gut-wrenchingly funny. While she makes fun of her Mennonite family it is pretty clear that she absolutely loves them. Really, truly, loves them and finds a certain amount of security in the faith that she left that they continue to embody– even though it is no longer hers.

As the book unfolds Janzen is pretty honest- she made some bad decisions- her marriage, which lasted 15 years was a rocky one, and her husband had always been iffy about his sexuality, was cruel and often emotionally abusive, but was also charming, smart, funny, and oh, yes, bi-polar. As the book unfolds Janzen realizes that the mess of her marriage was just as much her fault as his, because she allowed herself to get swept into this. Along the way, her family and friends help her sort it all out.

Janzen’s mom almost steals the book. She is caring, hysterical and earthy. I had moments when reading the book when I was reminded of my mom, and Janzen lovingly outlines all of her mom’s quirks, often for maximum humor potential. She also waxes on Mennonite food– and her love for it. So it is clear that even though Janzen became an urbane, educated, agnostic college professor, there are some things from her Mennonite past that she will never shake. Such as her love for borscht.

The book reads quickly and in places is very funny. It is a bit uneven, because I think this memoir in the end was more conceptual and stylized then perhaps a general audience would like. All the same, I really enjoyed it. Janzen has a great voice– honest, funny, and down-home and very real.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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