Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Memoir Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I never found time to officially sign up for the Nonfiction November reading challenge, but I did participate in my own way and read almost entirely nonfiction last month (a rarity for me!). One of the nonfiction books I was excited to get to was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen, a book I bought for myself at least five years ago (maybe longer) that has been patiently waiting on my shelf. It was worth the wait, and I thoroughly enjoyed this warm, funny memoir.

The author grew up in a Mennonite community in California and was still close to her parents and siblings but left for a secular life in academia years ago. Shortly after turning forty, however, her world fell apart. Her bipolar husband left her for a man named Bob he met on (seriously), and she was in a terrible accident that left her with severe injuries. In need of some serious comfort and love, she returned home to her parents' house in her hometown and her Mennonite roots.

I know, this story sounds really depressing, but Janzen has a wonderful sense of humor woven throughout her book. It's clear that writing the memoir helped her to heal, as did the return home. Her eccentric mother is an especially wonderful element here, as she is un-endingly optimistic and a good sport when Rhoda teases her (hilariously). She suggests that Rhoda get over her broken heart by dating her first cousin, who is an excellent catch because he owns a tractor. Humor like this runs through the memoir, and often surprised me into laughing out loud and quoting sections to my husband.

Despite the humor and laughs, though, Rhoda is dealing with some very serious hurts, both physical and emotional, in this memoir: her husband's mental illness, his often-abusive behavior, his abandoning her, and her accident. Fortunately, with her loving, quirky family around her and surrounded by traditions that remind her of her childhood, Rhoda slowly but surely begins to heal and move forward in this moving and amusing memoir. The book ends with a very educational - and entertaining - Mennonite History Primer.

241 pages, Holt Paperbacks

I see that Rhoda Janzen wrote a sequel memoir, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right: A Memoir of Faith, Hope, and Love. I would love to read it! I hope not to have to wait another 5 years to get to it...

A few personal notes:

I was fascinated by Janzen's description of Mennonite history. Since we live very close to Lancaster, PA (home to the original US Mennonite colony and many modern Amish (that's an oxymoron!) and Mennonite families), I thought I knew a lot about Mennonites. We even became good friends with a Mennonite family whom we used to stay with when we traveled through the area when I was a kid and attended their Sunday church service one year. But, in all that time, I'd never before heard that the Mennonites had occupied the Ukraine for hundreds of years. This was doubly-shocking to me because my own family is Ukrainian (my great-grandparents both emigrated to the US from the Ukraine when they were teens). Interestingly, all the foods that Janzen describes here as "traditional Mennonite foods" are actually Ukrainian dishes - they even use a phonetic version of the Ukrainian terms for them! I laughed as she described the same cabbage rolls (Holubsti in Ukrainian) and potato dumplings (Varenyky - known as pierogies in nearby Poland) and Borscht (beet soup) that my family also eats. So, even though I live near many Mennonites and thought I knew all about their culture, I learned a lot from this very entertaining memoir.

Disclosure: I purchased this book myself. My review is my own opinion.

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You can listen to a sample of the audio book at this link.

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  1. I had this book on my TBR years ago and never got around to reading it. I deleted it off the list, but now I am going to put it back on. Thank you for the reminder and great review!

    1. Ha! Sounds just like me. It sat on my TBR shelf for at least 5 yrs - glad I finally got to it. Hope you like it, too!