Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Travel Books & Movies — By on November 23, 2009 at 7:00 am

by Blair Hickman
LG Book Reviewer

In Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, author Rhoda Janzen has a botched hysterectomy that leaves her incontinent, carrying her pee bag in a patent, aqua tote for months. Shortly after, her husband of 15 years, already bipolar and psychologically abusive, leaves her for Bob the Guy from Gay.com. And that very same week, driving on snowy back roads to a home that she can no longer afford, she gets into a debilitating car wreck. Talk about rough.

Bruised and battered, Janzen returns home to her Mennonite community, expecting quiet time to work and save money. Instead, she reintroduces herself to the Mustard Seed Praise Quartet, platz and her mother’s unapologetic flatulence. The book doesn’t have much of a plot, per se, but Janzen’s immaculate attention to detail creates rich scenes that give readers a peek into her eccentric family, and Mennonite life from the perspective of an insider gone rogue.

And what an entertaining peek it is. Her father, the “equivalent of the Mennonite Pope, with plaid shorts and black socks,” is a stoic, frugal man who refuses to purchase anything not on the Dollar menu at McDonald’s, and her upbeat, optimistic mother, by far the best character in this book, never fails to surprise. She tries to set Janzen up with her first cousin, who drives a tractor, mind you, has no qualms with bodily functions and will drink tuna juice straight from the can, exclaiming ‘Schmeckt gut! Tastes like tooooona!”

Every scene-from Mennonite food to road trips to the ban on dancing in her high school-is flat-out funny. I sat alone in my apartment at 9 pm on Halloween night in a toga, laughing at this book and wondering if I should fulfill my evening obligations. It’s that good.

But the real beauty of this book lies in Janzen’s ability to make deadpan jokes about pee bags next to honest insights and questions about our own morality. “Can a skeptic ever be anything but a skeptic?,” she asks. “Can a loner ever come to cherish group think?” or “Is it ever a waste of time to love someone truly, deeply, with everything you have?” She never wallows in her sorrow, and most of these questions come near the end of the book, a darker section and the only one where Janzen fully addresses her break from her community and the decline of her hazardous marriage. The book’s humor may drive its momentum, but it’s this ending, where we hear Janzen’s inner struggle, acceptance and release, that holds the book together.

Janzen is first and foremost a poet and a scholar, and her expansive vocabularly and academic tendencies occasionally serve the story and occasionally don’t. And she does have a tendency to ramble, what seems like a slight lack of control over a narrative work of such length. That said, this is her first narrative work of this kind, and it still sparkles and shines. I would pick up a sequel in a heartbeat.

As avid travelers, Lost Girls readers will especially appreciate this book. Returning to your roots after time away can be a difficult, enlightening and terrifying thing; Janzen portrays it all with hilarious prose and touching insights that remind us that sometimes, we all just need to go home and have some Platz (find another Mennonite food).

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
published by Henry Holt and Company, 2009
* * * * 1/2 stars (out of 5)

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