Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review - Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Holt, 2009

Format? oversized paperback bought on Amazon

Why?  I'm trying to clean off my TBR shelves some this summer, this one was short and I'd read about a billion other reviews that talked about how funny it was.
What Now? After I lend it to a couple of friends, it's going on the keeper shelf.  What a hoot!!

Golden Lines

My father may actually be unaware that he is good-looking.  He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount.  Would God be pleased if we spent an unnecessary thirty-one cents at McDonald's?  I think not.

Call me old-fashioned, but whenever I see those wire-fortified ribbons, I have a secret stab of nostalgia for old-timey ribbon, the kind whose ends flop like spaniel ears.   I'm suspicious of unnaturally perky ribbon.

In the dining room we all gathered to pay homage to Deena's imaginative decor, where no surface had escaped yuletide festivity.  Its attractions included a wreath made of prodigious shiny balls, and a preponderance of more free-rolling balls the size of grape tomatoes that Deena had scattered, carelessly, among the plates and goblets.  She had also affixed a tiny silver ball to the stem of every wineglass - not that we would be drinking wine.  Mennonites tend toward militant sobriety.  But there was always sparkling apple juice for holiday celebrations.

From the kids' table in the other room came the sound of one of my many nephews whining.  There was a slap and an impatient reprimand from the oldest granddaughter, Phoebe, who was now old enough for Uggs and eye-rolling.

Once in grad school, an angry feminist who called herself Lilith but whose real name was Barb attended a swim party in an itsy bitsy swimsuit.  There was a general sense that she had done this on purpose to make everyone else uncomfortable.  From the bikini bottom exploded an epic, wiry bush.  This was pubic hair on a Richter scale, hair gone wild, hair raised by wolves.   It was hair that had taken over her entire southern region, like kudzu.

When my mother forbade me to dance in that talent show, I was actually grateful to be a Mennonite.  This is sort of like falling in love with your kidnapper.

Is it just me or is there something richly satisfying about filling jam jars as you pick up the alto to "In the Sweet By and By?"

My visit was drawing to a close, but my mother continued to surprise.  One of the greatest surprises to proximate auditors was her contribution of horatory flatulence.  Loud and astonishing were her expostulations, like the speeches of Daniel Webster.  These outbursts had become so frequent, yet so casual, that she no longer apologized.  She treated them stoically, with great inclusivity and tolerance.

Mary Loewen Janzen would have given the angelic nineteenth-century Marmee from Little Women a run for her money.


After the breakup of her 15 year marriage to a bi-polar, bi-sexual fella named Nick who leaves her for a guy named Bob and a serious car accident that leaves her without control of her bladder for months as well as terrible scars,  Rhoda Janzen decides to go home to heal.  Home is back to the Mennonite family and community that she separated herself from years earlier.  Nested comfortably within her family so she can write and earn some much needed cash, Janzen takes time to soul search.  Who is she?  What does her life mean? Where does she go from here? and What does it mean to be a person with a Mennonite background in a non-Mennonite world and vice versa?  No subject is off limits (family car trips, gassey relatives, her failed marriage to an psychologically disturbed person, faith, God, food, suicide, virtue, just to name a few)  in this deeply touching and hilarious memoir.

What I Liked 

Humor - OMG this book is hilarious.  Wait...please...this book is soooo funny!  There were a couple of parts that made me laugh so much that I was crying...I'm so not kidding.  

Rhoda's relationship with her mother - Even though Rhoda leaves the Mennonite faith, her mother, still very much within the faith, honors her wishes.  Her mother gives her the space she needs and doesn't question her choices.  Home is very much Rhoda's harbor; she is allowed to dock in the harbor when the seas are choppy and venture out into the open waters and return when she needs more strength.  

the vocabulary - cattywampus, hortatory condescension, Gatsbyesque scope, cognoscenti, malapropistic, intestinal turbulence, social rupture, hagiographic literature, solipsistic slacker, ratiocinative point of view, adiaphorous morality, pederasts and serial killers, quintessentially American bildungsroman, and on and on and on.

Description - I'm a fan of description done well...and boy does Rhoda ever do this well as you can see by some of the Golden Lines above.  You can see, feel, touch and/or smell her descriptions.  They add to the story and keep you riveted, waiting to see what she's going to say next :)

What I Didn't Like

The Cat Who...series by the late Lilian Jackson Braun - Janzen makes fun of this series at one point in the book...I LIKE this sweet little series :(

I am not easily offended...and Janzen never offended me, but there were a few times that I winced...particularly with her easily sarcastic way of handling parts of the Christian faith.  While I enjoyed this book immensely and will and have already recommended it to many of my friends, there are a few friends I would leave out of that recommendation...friends who would be offended.  

Overall Recommendations

If you can handle a no holds barred look at the dysfunctional life of a newly divorced, ex-Mennonite woman, go for it.  I'm glad I did :):)


  1. This one's on my TBR shelf as well and sounds like a great summer read. I'm all about some humor and enjoy glimpses of religions I'm largely unfamiliar with.

    1. I promise, Brooke...there is one particular part where I was laughing so hard, I was crying...sooo funny :) I hope she keeps writing :)