Rhoda Janzen’s memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress begins with a double blow when her husband leaves her for a man he’s met online and a drunk driver smashes head-on into her car. Injured physically and emotionally, she retreats to the family whose faith she’s spent a lifetime rebelling against.
Janzen’s parents are devout Mennonites—a separatist branch of Christianity that forswears decadence in all its forms. Despite the fact that Janzen, an academic, had long ago abandoned “the fold,” the community, instead of casting her into outer darkness, welcomes her back with open arms.
It is no surprise to this academic of religion, gender and psychology that the Mennonites welcomed this “heathen” back into the community; they have long been peace activists. For instance, in the United States Mennonites provided an alternative to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947, 4,665 Mennonites, Amish, Quakers (or “Friends”) and Bretheren in Christ were among nearly 12,000 conscientious objectors who worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, social services and mental health. Such ideas shaped a vision for The Peace Corps (introduced by Hubert Humphrey in 1957) as an alternative to enlisting as a soldier of war.
Still, in Janzen’s very personal recollections, eschewing all media, dancing, drinking and clothing fads seem to be what was remembered and mocked!
“It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I’m reading, but Janzen’s voice singular, deadpan, sharp-witted and honest slayed me.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
Janzen, just like David Sedaris of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, describes the characters in her own family with great candor.
In one section Janzen offers memories of Mennonite “foods of shame”—the things she was embarrassed to carry in her lunchbox, like soggy persimmon cookies, mushy meatballs made with saltine crackers and a dish called Hollapse—chartreuse or purple cabbage boiled, browned and baked. As a best-selling author, lots of freaky fans are writing to her and begging her for these odd recipes.
Like most memoirists that I coach, Janzen writes her own life history as a journey of discovery into the past and reconnects with some of the values she rejected when she “left home” decades before. Although she’s most often sardonic, Janzen’s writing is as honest as it is compassionate.
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