Broken from the sequence of an ugly divorce and a devastating car accident, Rhoda Janzen finds herself facing a harsh new reality in her forties. Long distanced from her conservative Mennonite family in California but still close to her sympathetic but stoic parents, Janzen boards a plane to abandon the lake house she once shared with her volatile husband and recuperate far from her old life.
Returning home to her traditional roots, Janzen laces anecdotes from her unique upbringing with the more complicated nature of her present. There were many times Mennonite In A Little Black Dress could have dissolved into a maudlin reflection of her tumultuous marriage and emotional and physical injuries, but it never does.
The synopsis above probably did nothing to sell you on how truly funny this book is. But it really is.
I read this book quickly, laughing at points until tears streamed down my face. Janzen’s mother, Mary, totally steals the show; her snappy one-liners and innocent-yet-savvy expressions were hilarious. And Janzen herself is a heroine we can all root for — a brilliant but damaged Everywoman. When her husband of many decades announces he’s leaving her for a man he met online, she crumbles. But her memoir doesn’t focus so much on her dissolution as it does the way she cobbles together the pieces of her broken heart into a new, stronger one.
As Janzen relives her marriage to Nick, a charismatic but unpredictable academic, we begin to feel her pain — and then we get angry. Why in the world would Rhoda stay with a man this violent, this harsh and mean-spirited? Like many, I wanted to shake Rhoda for being weak. Plain and simple, Nick was an abusive husband. Physically, emotionally — the scars ran deep. But as Janzen is sharing this story after the fact, we don’t become infinitely frustrated with her. As readers we understand she’s been through a (very) trying time; she’s seen the error of her ways. She’s making amends. She’s moving forward.
And that “moving forward” brings her home. You can’t help but giggle with — not at — her Mennonite family, learning about their traditional habits and practices. Janzen helpfully outlines a history of the Mennonites at the close of the book, and I almost wish this had come earlier as a short introduction. I’ll be perfectly honest: I was completely ignorant about Mennonites. I (wrongfully) assumed they lived as many of the local Amish do here in Maryland: very simply. Without electricity or running water. Without a working telephone. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read about Janzen’s childhood — the simple, homemade clothes; the public school education — and realized she was integrated with mainstream kids. Sometimes with hilarious results.
Then I felt dumb.
Mennonite In A Little Black Dress was the perfect combination of light and darkness, humor and poignancy. When Janzen recalled the kindness her students showed her after her car accident — carrying her bags around campus, writing her notes on the chalkboard so she wouldn’t have to lift her arms — I actually had tears in my eyes. Still smarting from her divorce, Janzen said she couldn’t help but feel as though the young people sensed more than just the pain of her broken bones. They took care with her. Though that passage was only a page or two long, it was one of the most memorable parts of the book.
Fans of memoirs — especially humorous ones — will delight in this snappy, quick and plucky memoir that also serves as a love letter to her family. Though the reviews are decidedly mixed, I loved it — and I definitely did not feel the story was as “mean-spirited” as others claim. It’s clear Janzen deeply loves her parents and that, despite everything, they deeply love her. No matter what. That’s family.
4 out of 5!