Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
by Rhoda Janzen

Henry Holt and Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0-805-08925-7.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 04/08/2010
Review of the Month, May 2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Relationships

Mennonites—the word brings to mind women in prim calico dresses with longish skirts, hair in buns covered by gauzy white hats, and men in suspenders. My contact with Mennonites has been limited to averted glances or shy smiles in discount stores and restrooms along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I've always been curious about these rural neighbors. What do they really believe? How does it feel to be so different, yet mingle in shopping malls with ordinary folks? When I saw this book on the library shelf, I hoped I'd find some answers, and I was not disappointed. Along with the answers, I also found heart-warming humor, compassion, and a fascinating story.

Rhoda Janzen is exceptionally well-qualified to address my questions. She grew up in a Mennonite family of impeccable pedigree. Her father was a minister, once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, making him "the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf." This introduction of her father sets the tone for the book. Janzen has a gift for deft descriptions that convey several layers of insight in a single phrase. She also has a gift for discussing topics like the "Mennonite closet of shame" with love and compassion. She left the faith when she opted to pursue a career in English Literature rather than enroll for a post-graduate degree as one of only two women in the Mennonite Seminary, but as her story unfolds, we learn that her life had been leading up to that point.

The book begins at a transition point. The day after her off-and-on-again husband left her for a man named Bob that he met on, Janzen was involved in a devastating automobile accident. A few weeks later, at the end of the current term, she was scheduled for a sabbatical from her faculty position at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Between pressing financial obligations brought about by the impending divorce and her impaired physical condition, she opted to return home to spend her sabbatical term with her parents rather than renting an apartment somewhere exotic. Most of the book covers events of that visit, her first in many years, although it is liberally laced with flashbacks to earlier scenes that explain her current view of life and provide a lens for readers to understand her cultural background. The flurry of insights Janzen experienced during her sabbatical struck similar chords in me.

I was left with a warm, friendly feeling toward the Mennonites, and understanding of the diversity of views and orthodoxy within the sect. I was impressed with the degree of tolerance they show for outsiders and their warm interest in learning about others. I seldom read a book that teaches me so many lessons while also delighting me with rollicking humor and masterful writing. This one does a fine job on all counts.

Rhoda Janzen holds a Ph.D. 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. Visit her website.

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