“I think that the Lord appreciates a man on a tractor more than a man smoking marijuana in his pajamas,” Mom said earnestly. “I know I do.”
When Rhoda Janzen’s husband leaves her for a guy named Bob (from Gay.com), and she has a serious car accident in the same week, she packs her bags and returns to the Mennonite Christian community that she had fled years earlier. Here in the enveloping comfort of her childhood home she has space to heal both physically and mentally, and to discover a number of truths about herself.
From her preacher father who doesn’t believe in cell phones, to her mother who thinks it would be good idea if she married her tractor driving cousin Waldemar, along with dozens of friends and relatives in between; this is a deeply affectionate portrait of both her family and their community. Religion is an intrinsic part of their world and the reader soon realises how it informs every facet of the community’s life. Rhoda explores what it means to them and the way in which it has shaped her adult life.
The there is the food – Mennonites like to cook and they like to eat. Much of this is mouth wateringly tempting, the double-decker Zweibach buns for instance, and all of it is comfort food (she describes it as “shame-based” food) designed for sharing with family and friends on an impressive scale.
There is no real storyline to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, rather it is a collection of anecdotes spun around her own personal journey of self discovery. It is achingly funny and poignant – she recounts the humiliations of taking food to school in a vinyl diaper bag (food that in itself was enough to guarantee ostracism by the non Mennonite kids) and the gentle but malign influences that keep her in a destructive marriage. Ultimately, though, it is about how she finds the resilience to deal with life’s curve balls – and that this comes from her childhood community.
This has been a bestseller in the U.S. and it translates well for Australian readers. Its genesis was in a series of emails that Rhoda wrote to her friends while she was staying with her family. This, along with the fact that her marriage breakdown is still raw and recent (she repeats the story of Bob from Gay.com several times), contributes to the rambling nature of the book. However while a greater period of reflection might have resulted in a tighter work, its chatty style is also a major strength.
Reading Mennonite in Little Black Dress is like sharing champagne and chocolate with your best friend as you howl with laughter over the funny side of life’s tragedies. This is a very enjoyable read and there are even Mennonite recipes at the end of the book for the truly intrepid.
Rhoda Janzen holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She is the author of Babel’s Stair, a collection of poems, and her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Title: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
Author: Rhoda Janzen
Publication Date: February 2011