book review: “mennonite in a little black dress” by rhoda janzen
Thanks to my friends over at Henry Holt and Co., I get to review another book for you all. Huzzah!
To say I snorted a little reading this memoir would be accurate. To say that I want to go back to school and enroll at Hope just so I can take one of Rhoda’s classes would also be true. But to say that I flat-out adored every page of this book would be the biggest and best truth.
Sass, wit, humor, introspection, honesty, bluntness, recipes — how could I possibly not like this book? (Chances are, if you include recipes in any book, I would at least give it a go.)
After her husband of 15 years left her for a guy named Bob he met on Gay.com and she nearly died in a car accident all in one week, Rhoda decided to spend her sabbatical from her teaching position at Hope College (merely an hour from me, in Holland!) in a very unlikely place — her parents’ house, in a small Mennonite community in California.
(“Aren’t Mennonites basically the Amish?” you may ask. Sort of — Rhoda does a great job explaining the differences, so I won’t even try. Just get the book and your questions will all be answered — and then some!)
Having grown up with a prestigious Mennonite pastor for a father and deciding to move away from her roots to pursue academia and marry an atheist in her 20s, Rhoda’s memoir unfolds like a pendulum between the values of her past and the realities of her present, never settling in one or the other. In the midst of the profound differences that separate her and her upbringing, this memoir reads not as a love letter or a roast, but as a signature of her deep respect and reflective love for the Mennonite community. She never takes cheap shots or turns her nose up at the way she grew up.
I think my favorite component of this book were her hilarious stories revolving around her family, particularly her happily zany mother who carries a wholesome zest for life and suggests that Rhoda marry her Canadian cousin, since, well, he does have a tractor. Her knack for describing people as they are, not as they’d like to be seen, provides insightful and amusing portraits of characters we all find in our lives every day — sisters, brothers, elderly neighbors, ex-boyfriends and the like.
Her biting humor allows her not to make light of the tragedy that has splintered her life, but to cope with it and process it. As she examines her failed marriage, she asks the poignant question that we’ve all faced when standing in the wreckage of a relationship: “Is it ever really a waste of time to love somebody, truly and deeply, with all you have?”
Mirroring the blatant honesty of her mother, Rhoda doesn’t edit her life or her family to make them acceptable or neat. She allows the ragged edges, mistakes and eccentricities be exactly what they are which helps make the fabric of this book real and engaging.
[Photo credit here]