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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress - Rhoda Janzen This book is an example of turning lemons into lemonade as only a skilled writer can do. Have you ever noticed that some of the most interesting stories we tell others are those personal experiences where everything went wrong? Well, Rhoda Janzen has written about a time in her life when everything that could go wrong happened. Her skilled writing has turned her memories into an entertaining, often humorous, memoir. Contrary to Thomas Wolfe's novel, "You Can't Go Home Again," Rhoda went home to heal. Apparently, if you're Mennonite you can go home. It sort of puts the old home folks into a new light. (See "Note" at end of this review.)

Much of Janzen's book reads as a script from the monolog of a stand-up comedian. Her narrative wanders through her life experiences in random order moving from health problems to marital difficulties, from stories about growing up in a Mennonite family to almost attending a Mennonite seminary. She seems to accept the possible premise that her life may have been different had she decided to attend the seminary. But instead she obtained an English PhD from UCLA, won some prizes along the way, and landed a professorship at a liberal arts college. All these stories are told in a flippant humorous format that makes light of even the miserable times in her life.

In a chapter titled "The Trump Shall Sound" she adopts a bit more somber tone to discuss her view of religion. She explains why she has not stayed within the faith of her ancestors, and then proceeds to give some compliments to the Mennonites that she has left. "Consider what happens when scholarship and education expose many of the assumptions of organized religion as intellectually untenable. ... Yet I cannot deny the genuine warmth my mother seems to radiate--indeed, that all these Mennonites seem to radiate. It’s clear that this Mennonite community is the real deal. They really try to practice what they preach." She acknowledges that religion can help some people live a virtuous life. "If in the service of choosing virtuous behavior we need to practice some odd belief, where's the harm? ... there are many paths to virtue, many ways of creating the patterns of behavior that result in habitual resistance to human badness. ... At this stage of my life, I am willing to accept not only that there are many paths to virtue, but that our experiences on these varied paths might be real. "

She proceeds to give her own "self-help" advice in a chapter titled "And That's OK" where she describes her 12-step program for people recovering from a divorce based on her personal experiences. There is plenty of irony and humor in her comments, but it certainly has a serious side. I don't think she wants to be considered as a self-help guru. But she certainly lays out some suggestions that I imagine to be good discussion starters for book groups that read and discuss her book.

When people learn that she is divorced and single they often try to fix her up with dates with single men. So she proceeds in a chapter titled "The Raisin Bombshell" to explain her definition of sexiness in men. She says that she and her sister, " ... never met a datable Mennonite man." I began to feel less sympathy for her marital misfortunes after she made that comment. (In the interest of full disclosure I must admit here to being a Mennonite man, though admittedly undatable due my marriage status.)

She even includes an irreverent Appendix at the end of the book in which she tries to anticipate the questions of readers about the Mennonites. A quote from the Appendix that caught my attention is, "A liberal Mennonite is an oxymoron... ." She goes on to explain how Mennonites are so conservative that they end of being sort of liberal -- anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-consumer, and advocates for simple lifestyle and the environment. I was not very impressed with her knowledge of the historical reasons for the Amish-Mennonite split. All I can say is, don't let this woman write the Wikipedia article about Mennonites! I'll grant her a top grade for creative writing, but it's just as well that she didn't choose to be a historian.

I couldn't help but notice that Janzen makes numerous references to things Mennonite, but never mentions that the church denomination in which she grew up goes by the name, "Mennonite Brethren." I can understand that most who read this book probably don't care about this distinction. But for those who are familiar with the different shades of Mennonite, it does make a difference.

For a review of the book from the Mennonite Weekly Review newspaper click here. Here's another review written by a Mennonite. (Link to 2nd Review) This second review is written by Shirley Hershey Showalter, past-president of Goshen College. Her review is quite long and toward the end she raises the issue of the author's responsibility for the feelings of the people about whom they write in their memoir.

I can understand the discomfort of some Mennonites--and I speak as one myself--who feel that the generalizations contained in the book can be misleading. But Janzen is writing about her experiences from her perspective with just enough embellishment to be entertaining. She doesn't pretend to be writing an objective unbiased news report. I congratulate her on being able to create an entertaining tale from the story of her life. I just hope other members of her family, her mother in particular, have a sense of humor. She makes numerous humorous remarks about them, and they may be surprised to see their foibles published so publicly.

My advice to parents--don't raise your child to be a writer. Otherwise you may see every disagreement you've had with your child published in their memoir. After reading this book I've decided to be careful what I say and do around writers who may be potential memoir writers. You never know.

I recommend You Never Gave Me a Name: One Mennonite Woman's Story by Katie Funk Wiebe for an alternative memoir of a Mennonite Woman. (Click Here for my Review.)