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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

July 25, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
Rebecca Janzen
Holt Paperbacks April 2010 $14.00 272 pages

The disarmingly funny candor of this memoir made it feel much more “little black dress” than Mennonite. Janzen’s confessions of her failed marriage to a bipolar atheist who left her for a man via Gay.com are howlingly, sometimes uncomfortably funny. But they seem out of place with a mental image I have of Mennonite. Janzen’s appendix chapter is helpful on this front: I may have gotten Mennonites confused with Amish. Janzen’s perspective on her family and the traditions of her Mennonite upbringing sees the humor in their warmth and gentle oddity, rather than a hard-line religious seperateness. The way Rhoda and her family relate to each other, they could be any family: laughing and dredging up old family stories, driving across country to help each other out. But the Janzens also have the extended Mennonite community and traditions- singing in harmony, not dancing particularly, and the language and rosy cheeks of extended German heritage.

There’s so much of both heartbreak and laughter in these essays, sometimes both woven together in the same one. Janzen details the collapse of her marriage, her husband’s caustic barbs, her own health difficulties. And also leaves me snorting and gasping with laughter over her mother’s gross-out dinner table conversation, crazily frugal family camping trips, vacation bible school. The Five Mennonite Lunchbox Foods of Shame that made Rhoda and her siblings feel like school outcasts get described in loving, but kind of stomach-turning detail.
Some passages will make you cringe, some will make you rage (why did Rhoda take 15 entire years to leave Nick, who seems useless and mean?) and some of the odder customs of Janzen’s extended family will perplex you.

You can’t read this book quietly. You will giggle, snort, howl, wheeze, even sigh. Read it.

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