Henry Holt & Company, 2009
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
My Rating: 4 stars
Book Description (from back of book):
Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured. Needing a place to rest and pick up the pieces of her life, Rhoda packed her bags, crossed the country, and returned to her quirky Mennonite family’s home, where she was welcomed back with open arms and offbeat advice. (Rhoda’s good-natured mother suggested she get over her heartbreak by dating her first cousin—he owned a tractor, see.)
Written with wry humor and huge personality—and tackling faith, love, family, and aging—Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an immensely moving memoir of healing, certain to touch anyone who has ever had to look homeward in order to move ahead.
I’m a big fan of memoirs, and my favorite ones feature a writer with a distinctive and funny voice. I’m pleased to report that Rhoda Janzen has such a voice–hilarious, sarcastic, bawdy and honest to a fault. Reading her memoir is like hanging out with a close girlfriend who has bad things happen to her but is able to find the humor in them and make you (and her) laugh.
Much of the humor in this memoir comes from Rhoda’s poking gentle fun at her Mennonite upbringing and family, including her mother (whose choice of appropriate dinnertime conversation often leaves much to be desired). But evident in all the joking is an obvious love and affection for her family and her Mennonite roots. Rhoda makes it clear that, although the Mennonite lifestyle wasn’t a good fit for her personally, there are many positive things about the religion and the lifestyle, especially the food. (A few recipes from Rhoda’s mom were included at the end of my version of the book. Rhoda calls them “shame-based recipes,” in honor of the shame that she and her sister felt when eating them at school. After all, most kids don’t bring borscht for lunch!)
Despite all the humor, Rhoda experienced some serious issues that led her to seek respite in her parent’s home during her divorce. Despite all her jokes about her husband leaving her for a man named Bob, readers get a fuller picture of the realities of life with her husband as we progress through the book. It wasn’t just a matter of “realizing” he was gay; the problems of their marriage were far more deep-rooted, stemming primarily from her husband’s bipolar disorder. Although she is candid and open, I felt that Janzen held back a bit on how difficult things were for her during her marriage and its break-up. It was as if she could only share so much and then had to go for the laugh. Although I understand this need, I felt it kept the memoir from having depth.
My Final Recommendation
In the end, I think Rhoda’s focus on humor and comedy keeps this memoir from being truly excellent (though perhaps the events are still too fresh to examine closely). With the focus squarely on the more comedic aspects of her Mennonite childhood and return home, Janzen’s memoir stays mostly on the light and funny side … yet the reader is very aware that a lot of pain and sadness present in her life. I personally would have liked a little bit more depth and introspection alongside the comedy. However, I recommend the book for memoir fans who like sass and spirited writing. And if you are familiar with the Mennonite religion and community, you might enjoy it even more.
I chose the following excerpt to share because it reminded me so much of how my own grandmother shared family recipes and I thought it might resonate with you as well.
In the recipe, Oma’s voice comes through, practical and vague, advising her daughter to use whatever she has handy in the larder–butter, or margarine, or even chicken fat. Oma assumed that ingredients would vary according to season and budget. She also assumed that knowledge of the correct quantities would miraculously come to my mother in the night. “Take some milk or some water and warm it and then add it to some flour,” she advised helpfully.
The Whys and Wheres
I’d seen this memoir reviewed on a several book blogs (though I can’t remember which ones now!) and it seemed like it was right up my alley. When a representative from Henry Holt and Company offered me a chance to peruse their catalog and select some books to review, this one was a no-brainer! Much thanks to Henry Holt and Company for my review copy of the book. Look for it in my upcoming July giveaway!
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