Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Monday, December 13, 2010

Imagine the most embarrassing thing your parents ever made you wear or do.  Now multiply that by 10 and you may have some idea of Rhoda Janzen's childhood.  In her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Janzen tells the story of growing up in the Mennonite community in California, and going back to that community at 40 in the wake of a divorce and major health crisis.

Janzen's father was a leader in the Mennonite community, traveling the world and converting non-believers.  Her mother was the backbone of their family.  She was the one that made their lard sandwiches for their school lunches (yes, I said lard), and sewed mismatched strips of fabric at the bottom of their pants when they got too short (you begin to see where the embarrassment comes in).  Rhoda and her sister are very close, and both of them left the community for college.  Their three brothers married nice Mennonite girls and settled down to raise nice Mennonite children. 

Janzen describes her family and her life as an adult with humor, which is good, considering how challenging some of it was.  She was married for 16 years to a man with bi-polar disorder, and like many people in her situation she rationalized away much of his behavior, telling herself that he really loved her underneath all of the cruelty and obsessive behavior.  What she couldn't rationalize away was Bob, the man that her husband met on  Despite having become a non-believer herself, when she goes home to heal after her divorce and a major car accident, she finds herself comforted by how little has changed.

Janzen is an English professor, and you can tell.  Her vocabulary is impressive, though it can be disconcerting to read a story about some rather mundane aspect of life and have to look up a word to understand her point.  Despite my rather frequent trips to, it was an easy, enjoyable read.

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