A few months ago, I read a hilarious essay in the The New York Times titled The Tractor Driver or the Pothead? I flagged it, passed it on to a few friends, and eventually forgot about it. When I found out the new memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress had Michigan roots, I immediately pursued a copy and realized upon its arrival that author (and Hope College professor) Rhoda Janzen was the very same author who had penned the aforementioned Pothead essay. Smiling, I knew I was in for an entertaining ride.
If you google reviews of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress what you will find are words like hilarious, laugh out loud, funny, sparkling…and all of these are spot on. However, Janzen tempers the hilarity with her somber return home to her Mennonite roots in hopes of healing her broken body and spirit.
We all have friends whose lives are so full of rich material we beg them to write a book, and in this case Ms. Janzen does just that. After her husband splits for a man he met on Gay.com and she suffers a horrid car accident, Janzen heads home to the land of bad food, clothes, and hairdos to try to piece together her damaged life.
The return home for an adult can be a daunting journey, particularly when you have decidedly moved beyond the strict moral codes of your Mennonite faith, yet Janzen finds herself appreciating the very things she once despised as a child. Through her experienced eyes, she is able to see the beauty in her Mennonite community and take refuge in its straightforward tenets and simplistic approach…while laughing all the way.
Though the rapid wit is a bit frantic at times, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress compensates with deep passages and touching tributes to her wonderfully endearing mother and Janzen’s tight circle of friends. Once you tone down the humor and up the sensitivity controls, you will find an honest account of mistakes made and the largesse of forgiveness. Beneath the laughter of Mennonite lie some heavy-duty philosophical questions as Janzen takes a look at her life and this period of tough transition:
I sometimes ask my college students if they think it’s possible for a thirty-plus adult to experience saltatory ideological change. I tell them that I’m not talking about the kind of gradual mellowing that results from age. Nor do I mean the kind of abrupt character fissure that opens in the wake of trauma or suffering. Rather, I want to know what they think about the possibility of a profound, lasting change that emerges from an act of deliberated, conscious self-determination. I want to know if they think we can change our core assumptions about what we believe. About how we believe.
Though such passages give pause, overall Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is terribly intelligent and damn funny. Added bonus: If you know nothing of the Mennonite community, this is the perfect “Menno 101” crash course that only the talented professor Rhoda Janzen can provide.
-Review by Megan Shaffer