Humorous memoir lacks depth
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
In the same week that Rhoda Janzen’s husband left her “for a guy from gay.com,” she was hit head-on in her car by a drunk teenager. These events eventually sent her home to California for a five-month recuperation and sabbatical from her teaching job at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
“Going home,” for Rhoda, meant confronting her Mennonite roots. In this book, Janzen explores those roots along with her understanding of what led to the breakup of her marriage. Contrary to what some may expect, the writing is upbeat and humorous, poking fun at the foibles of her parents and siblings as well as the cultural foods and habits of the community in which she grew up.
The book is written from the perspective of one who has long ago left the community and the faith of her upbringing. Janzen describes how “the Mennonites” dressed, cooked their food, took family vacations, and eschewed higher education. The overall attitude that pervades the book is that “the Mennonites” are sheltered, fearful, miserly, and have poor taste in clothes and home decor. Their food, though usually tasty, is a matter of embarrassment, especially when taken to school for lunch. The religious beliefs of “the Mennonites” are quaint, exclusive, and sometimes comforting. Only a few people mentioned in the book escape Janzen’s humorously biting and expositional scrutiny.
Alongside these descriptions are Janzen’s musings about the demise of her marriage. These are the more serious parts of the book, though they, too, are suffused with humour.
As one who is Mennonite by faith, and not by birth, I wished for more from this book. Janzen’s story is her own, and I do not argue with it. She writes well. Her upbeat attitude in coping with the truly horrendous events that led to her writing is admirable.
Still, I wondered what she was hoping to accomplish. Her portrait of “the Mennonites” is narrow, stereotypical, and shallow. Growing up, I experienced many of the same fears and humiliations that she claims come from being Mennonite. It seemed the humour often sabotaged a deeper exploration of the events and relationships that brought her to where she was. The hyperbole was sometimes confusing.
I couldn’t help but wish that Janzen had been able to look with as much compassion and self-reflectiveness on “the Mennonites” as she did on her ex-husband.
–Lori Matties is a spiritual director and freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg. She attends River East MB Church.