July 18, 2014

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

 I have come to believe that virtue isn't a condition of character. It's an elected action. It's a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we create a habit so strong it will carry us through our bouts of pettiness and meanness.
-from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress chronicles Rhoda Janzen's life after her bipolar husband of fifteen years leaves her for a man. Rhoda weaves stories of growing up in a Mennonite home with stories of returning home after her divorce and the differences between the Mennonite lifestyle and the secular life she has chosen for herself. With a poignantly witty voice that uses humor to color in some seriously difficult chapters in her life, Janzen ultimately presents a story of loving yourself and appreciating your roots, no matter how different and somewhat ridiculous.

So here's what I expected: a story about a girl who chose a secular life of technology, R-rated movies and store bought butter. My ignorance of Mennonite life (despite my education in Comparative Religion) kind of affected my rating because I expected a much greater disconnect between Janzen's Mennonite family an her secular lifestyle, but aside from her parents being hyper-religious and, in effect, hyper-conservative, there were no horse-and-buggy or butter churning stories found here. As you can learn in the appendix, that would be the Amish, who are an even more conservative off-shoot of Mennonite. Overall I felt like Janzen's childhood wasn't too terribly different from any other extremely religious or conservative upbringing, especially considering she has two parents who love her dearly.

Similarly, I wasn't expecting this memoir to be such a mixture of stories from Janzen's past as much as stories about her transition after her divorce. Obviously there should be stories of her childhood to give the reader a gauge of where she comes from, but sometimes it seemed less about her journey going home and more about her life in general. The title in general completely gave me different expectations and ultimately felt like a marketing ploy, which I didn't like.

At the end of the day, Rhoda Janzen has a strong and funny sense of style as a writer. Her vocabulary is more than just impressive, not just by her knowledge but her usage of words. Some parts of this book are laugh out loud funny, some of them are just plain sad. I think most every female reader can identify with Janzen in some way or another, especially if you have come from a religious family (in any faith or denomination). I listened to this book via audio book and it entertained me throughout my commute. I just think it's important to know that you're not going to read a book about a huge culture-shock so much as you're going to hear another story of a woman learning to love herself with the help of her colorful family.

Bottom Line: This is a good read, but not as outrageous as the title implies. Full of colorful stories about Janzen's life growing up in a hyper-religious family, this story contains no horse-and-buggies, so don't confuse Mennonite with Amish. 3/5 stars, but it might have been better with different expectations.

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