Recently a friend lent me a copy of Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. It's probably not a book I would have chosen for myself. The title sounded a little cutesie, and a front cover blurb by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert did make me worry that this was yet another book about a plucky gal finding her bliss. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover.
It's true, there is an annoying gimmick early in the book, where Janzen presents faux questionnaires to the reader. The choices are too stupid to repeat, and she almost lost me right there. Fortunately this device is soon abandoned and Janzen, a poet and college professor, tells her story in a straightforward and very funny way.
At the age of forty-three she is abandoned by her husband of fifteen years, a brilliant, demanding, bipolar artist who leaves her for a man he met on gay.com. In that same week she is involved in frightening car crash which leaves her with multiple fractures. Broken in body and spirit, she heads for home – a California Mennonite community where her parents still live.
Growing up in a strict Mennonite household, Janzen had a childhood with no TV, slumber parties, card-playing or dancing. Having escaped this rigid environment, she might easily be tempted to make fun of it. And she does amusingly recall her unfashionable clothes (as she grew her mother would sew a strip of whatever fabric she had onto the bottom of her pant legs) and her “shame-based” school lunches brought from home in a navy diaper bag. But she's not a whiner, and she's blessed with a mother whose optimism makes Pollyanna look like Eeyore, and whose enthusiasm for cooking, singing hymns and matchmaking (preferably to Mennonite farmers with tractors) is utterly engaging.
Janzen tackles the paradox that, although her sheltered upbringing may well have caused her to stay in a toxic marriage far too long, her education in the Mennonite virtues of hard work, honesty, respect for family, and responsibility allowed her survive and grow. And the sense of humor she got from her mother didn't hurt either.