Book review: Rhoda Janzen’s “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress”

Just finished this book. I was drawn to it because the Mennonite Church figures in my family history–my mother’s people would relate with pride (if pride were allowed) the role of my distant ancestors in the good works of that institution. But their world is not for me. The stern visiages and sterner values of those people who are my ancestors gave me something to define myself against. The whole no-music, no-cards, no-dancing thing does not appeal.

So I picked up Rhoda’s book about her own experience defining herself against her Mennonite heritage, then returning to it. Thought maybe I’d get some insight into my own roots.

I like the tone of the book. I enjoy her self-depracating humor, her breezy wit, her emotional warmth.

To my friend who just had the hysterectomy–read this book. Janzen’s first chapter makes hilarious hay of her experience with “radical salpingo-oopherectomy.” It’s good to laugh along with someone who says, “I’d never been much attached to my uterus to begin with, since I had elected not to have children.” Never been attached to… that’s evidence of Janzen’s fine ability to deploy the mot juste.

To my friend whose husband just announced he wanted a divorce–read this book. Janzen’s incantatory use of “my husband who left me for Bob, the guy he met on Gay.com” will be a refreshing hug from a sistah going down that road with you.

In the end, I didn’t love the book, and I didn’t learn much about Mennonites that would change my relationship to my own family tree.

But certain scenes struck me as masterful–worthy of study. Writing about escaping into her work as she adjusts to her marriage falling apart… “When I wasn’t in the coldly elegant law office, I wanted to be.” (She works as a receptionist.) “The law office was my safe zone, my precious nullity. Slowly my wardrobe darkened. I wore navy with navy. The chignon tightened. I began to wear hairspray, to like the bite and scrape of bobby pins.”

How about that use of precise detail to convey an interior emotional landscape!

Chapter Eleven, “And That’s Okay!” parodying a self-help book’s chipper advice… just good fun, 12-stepping through divorce, and then you hit a turn of phrase so moving it demands a full stop to find a bookmark so you can read that phrase again and again. “That year the first snows came heavily, big flakes falling into the lake like words into memory, heavy, irreclaimable.”

Okay, is it just because I’m obsessed with memoir that I find that so compelling? Or is it her pure and evident joy in using words well? She’s shown that under that bright surface of humor she is essentially a poet.

Bottom line: this isn’t a book I’ll draw on often, but it was a fun read and if you’re in a sad place in your life, brought on by health or relationship issues, you’ll find something here to lift you like a visit from a good friend.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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