Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home

by Rhoda Janzen

New York, Henry Holt and Co., 2009

Week 31      Memoir

Rhoda Janzen says that she was in a “weird personal space” when she wrote Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. She was on sabbatical from the English Dept. at Hope College in Holland, Michigan; her husband had left her for a guy he met on; and she had been in a terrible car accident with many broken bones. What to do when you are 43 years old, and your life is in shambles? Go home to your family?

Well, that is exactly what she did. She went back to the Mennonite community in California where her father and mother lived and where she had grown up. With nothing to do and time to kill, she began writing down the stories that her parents told, musing about the conservative and confining upbringing she had tried to escape, and putting her heritage into the context of her current life.

What emerged is a very funny narrative of those months among the Mennonites, a clear-eyed look at her circumstances, and the emergence of gratitude for life with all its ups and downs. Janzen says that she wrote with humor because sometimes “serious content is best framed with levity and humor.” Often the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes they are poignant, but always they are filled with love for family, friends, and life.

The New York Times reviewer says: “Janzen is as sharp about the cognoscenti and academics she now lives among as she is about Mennonites and her family’s eccentricities. Her tone reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s deadpan, affectionate, slightly hyperbolic stories about urbanites and Minnesota Lutherans, and also of the many Jewish writers who’ve brought mournful humor to the topics of gefilte fish and their own mothers, as well as to the secular, often urban, often intellectual world they call home now. It’s the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.”

I think the best part of the book is the portrayal of her family and particularly her mother. I was reminded of the deadpan way David Sedaris tells stories about his family, with love and a lot of self-deprecating humor. Janzen’s mother says what’s on her mind, no matter what, when, or where. And her observations are both pithy and funny. I also enjoyed her descriptions of the agonies of growing up Mennonite—the food, the clothes, the embarrassment of public school. The chapter on the five worst Mennonite school lunches is particularly funny. As a child who never had a HoHo or package of potato chips in my lunch, I really got a kick out of her descriptions, although I never had to face cold hot potato salad or borsht in my lunch.

As Janzen comes to grips with her husband’s betrayal and plots a course for her future, the nurturing warmth of her family helps her move forward. She says that this time for her was a demonstration of what it means to love—to go backward in order to go forward.

I am in Duluth this week with my mother, and I was telling the hospice chaplain about the book, about Janzen’s appreciating anew her background that she had tried so hard to forsake. I mentioned that for most of us, the faith of our childhood has given way to something quite different. My mother looked at me keenly and said, “In what way is your faith different now?” I was a bit stunned at the clarity with which the question was asked; my mother is currently not known for her clarity! I responded that I think that my faith is more inclusive now; there are not so many dos and don’ts that guide me, and that I am more intuitive in my thinking and less didactic. Yet, I—like Janzen—treasure the upbringing that made me the person I am today. I can do all the things Janzen says she learned—to put together a dinner for ten in an hour; to sew a dress, or in my case, a costume, and celebrate the arrival of a host of overnight guests. Training obviously pays off!

I can highly recommend this book. It has gleaned lots of critical support and is sure to become a book club favorite.

Here is the New York Times review:

This narrative video shows Janzen at her home on Lake Allegan (familiar to many people from West Michigan) and shows a lot of family pictures:

An insightful interview:

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