Chris's Reviews > Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
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's review
Apr 28, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: adult, humor, life, voice, nonfiction

“Well, he doesn’t really believe in cell phones,” she apologized. For my father, belief in cell phones was somehow optional. It was a deeply subjective matter, like reincarnation. Inviting cell phones into your heart like Jesus was clearly something he was unprepared to do.


When she was 43, Rhoda Janzen’s husband of more than 15 years left her for a guy named Bob that he met on (as she frequently reminds us). A week later she was nearly killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. Those two events led to an extended stay with her parents while she took a sabbatical. A stay with her Mennonite parents in her Mennonite community that she had largely left behind to become a not-quite atheist professor in the secular world. While with them, she reflected on her youth, her family, her Mennonite heritage, her marriage to Nick, and her current state of affairs. What emerged was this memoir. It is not so much a story as an intertwining of countless little stories and meditations as Janzen took stock of her life. All of them are told with an intelligent, funny, and deeply personal voice.

My one bone to pick with Janzen’s writing stems from that deeply personal voice, as she often generalizes her particular experiences as representative of the homogeneous label “Mennonite.” As a fellow “strayed” Mennonite I can relate to much of what she says, but she also glosses over many differences that I wouldn’t claim. She is Mennonite Brethren, for instance, who in her case are from Fresno by way of Canada by way of a long stay in Ukranian Russia, whereas my clan from the old Mennonite Church are Kansan by way of Indiana by way of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. We all originally hailed from the German and Dutch-speaking parts of Central Europe, but I don’t have any stories about taking Borscht to school for lunch, as an example, and she tells it as though we all do. She also takes some creative license to exaggerate for the sake of humor and better anecdotes, but that doesn’t bother me the same way as her using her unique experiences with her unique family as a representation of all Mennonites everywhere.

Still, that’s a minor issue. Overall I greatly enjoyed the book and found myself going back and forth between laughing and marking sections I wanted to share as insightful depictions of Mennonite characteristics. As with herself and the members of her family, Janzen’s feelings about being Mennonite are mixed; many of her vignettes and depictions are almost cruelly honest and snarky, yet many others are clearly appreciative and loving. More often than not, both dynamics are at play at the same time. Most importantly, the book is an entertaining reflection on an individual’s identity and sometimes painful experience of life.


But the Amish cut away from the Mennonites in 1693 because the rest of us were too liberal. That’s rich, no? A liberal Mennonite is an oxymoron if ever there was one. So many Mennonite beliefs and practices are conservative that folks are perplexed by what they see as a curious dichotomy. One the one hand, the Mennonites resist change with the narrow doxy and their old-fashioned commitment to family values. On the other hand, those same Mennonites have actually identified with some leftist attitudes over the course of their near-five-hundred-year history. Because they are pro-peace, they are antiwar. Because they are nonviolent, they oppose the death penalty. Because they are anticonsumer, they promote a simple lifestyle that advocates for the environment. It’s a curious collision of opposite forces that even today results in split political filiations among American Mennonite churches. Some are Republican; others lean Democrat. . . .

I’m not really sure what the Amish rebel Jacob Amman found to object to in our humble little religion. We Mennonites were pretty damn holy in the early years. For instance, we were the folks who got burned at the stake, like witches, but without the exciting element of sexual mystery. . . . I can’t speak for the witches, but the Anabaptists were so eager to die for their faith that they made it a point to refuse the optional little bag of gunpowder that was offered as a civil courtesy to most martyrs. . . . They
wanted the long drawn-out pain, on the theory that Jesus Christ’s protracted suffering on the cross served as a shining example for us all.
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