Mennonite in Blue Jeans

Mennonite in Blue Jeans: a Lenten Journey
Rhonda Langley

Rhoda Janzen (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress) and Rhonda Langley (Mennonite in Blue Jeans: a Lenten Journey) have proven with their two books that no two Mennonites are alike. In fact, Rhoda and Rhonda share some similarities, as Rhonda points out at the beginning of her book. They both grew up in the same Fresno, Cal., community, with fathers who taught at the same college. Both are literature scholars and poets. But where Rhoda wears heels and a little black dress, Rhonda alternates between blue jeans and brown pants. Where Rhoda is outgoing and flashy, Rhonda is quiet and shy.

Many in Langley’s home community took offence at Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Langley writes to provide a different perspective on the Mennonites she grew up with, one that doesn’t so much laugh at them as honour their heritage and offer a wider view of Mennonites as successive generations become distanced from their immigrant roots. “It’s too bad that [Rhoda’s] book was a New York Times bestseller, and that’s what everyone will think about Mennonites now,” Langley writes.

Langley’s book alternates in time between the six weeks of Lent (in which she is engaged in writing the book) and her growing-up years, interspersed with both her family’s history and some historical facts about the Mennonites who emigrated from Ukraine to the United States.

Rhonda, her husband Silas, and their two boys live in a cooperative housing community in Portland, Ore., where they attend Portland Mennonite Church. She relates her experience growing up in Fresno, meeting Silas in college, and their struggles as a young couple in graduate schools, with Silas’s health issues and their son’s high-functioning autism. Threaded through that story is their interest and experimentation with community living. What emerges from the telling is a life lived with courage, grace, and humour amid the not-insignificant struggles with disability. For Langley, writing has provided a solace by ordering the chaos of less-than-ideal circumstances.

All lives are interesting. I appreciated Langley’s attempt to paint Mennonites with a broader brush, and to depict them not as a group of people with odd habits and food preferences, but as a people with distinct values and faith perspectives. I also appreciated her wry humour about her ancestors (the male ones, at least) and their bearded or beardless faces, for example, or her very introverted courtship with Silas. I was inspired by her persistence in the face of a difficult life.

And yet, as with Little Black Dress, Blue Jeans left me wanting more. It could have used a good editing to correct a few grammatical errors and to provide a more cohesive read. More importantly, if Langley had really wished to provide an alternative to Janzen’s picture of U.S. Mennonites, then this book should have offered a deeper understanding of what being a Mennonite means to her, and why this perspective deserves a hearing by the general public.

Langley’s book doesn’t quite dig deep enough. She starts to ask how current generations of this immigrant group are assimilating to the culture, but she could have explored this idea more and showed how her own life has mirrored or deviated from it.

A better balance of the whimsical with some deeper analysis would have made this book a more compelling read for a wider audience.

Lori Matties is a spiritual director and freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg. She attends River East Mennonite Brethren Church. For comparison, see her review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress here.

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