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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home - Rhoda Janzen

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Genre: Biography / Author: Rhoda Janzen / 256 pages / Book published 2011-01-11 by Atlantic Books

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      04.08.2011 14:53
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      A journey of discovery into the heart of Mennonite society

      Rhoda Janzen was raised within a Mennonite community in California in a loving but highly religious household. Her father was head of the Mennonite community in North America and her mother was an eternally cheerful and pragmatic homemaker. Having chosen education before God, Rhoda left her home and community to begin to live a 'normal' life, gaining a degree, working as a teacher in a college and getting married in the process. During this time, she wasn't cast off by her parents or shunned by the Mennonite community but she was living a life very much separate from that of her family though she did return for visits from time to time.

      Her story isn't so much an autobiography but more of a memoir of a particularly bleak time in her life and her return to the home and community she'd left twenty five years before. It's told in a humorous and light hearted manner and certainly without any sign of self-pity. This isn't a 'poor me' memoir but more an 'I will survive' one.

      Rhoda's life was jogging along in a pretty average way until she reached her early forties when the proverbial doo-doo began to hit the fan. First, she had a fairly routine hysterectomy operation but during the surgery, her surgeon managed to puncture a couple of vital organs resulting in Rhoda being discharged from hospital two weeks later catheterised and in a wheelchair. To begin with she was too ill to take much notice of anything but eventually she began to realise that things weren't too good, particularly regarding her waterworks. "I kept watching bubbles drift down the tube, thinking, I'm peeing. Right now. Or I'm eating and peeing at the same time. I am woman, hear me pee!"

      After a year with her 'pee bag', she was back to full health and she and Nick, her husband of fifteen years, had just bought a new and expensive house. The ink was hardly dry on the mortgage agreement, however, before Nick left Rhoda for a chap called Bob whom he'd met on Gay.com! Could Rhoda's life get any worse? Well, yes, it could actually. Shortly after Nick's departure, whilst on her daily commute from work during the first snow of the winter, she was involved in a car accident which left her battered and bruised. Rhoda freely admits "I was broke and broken. Clocked in the chops by a lead glove." And what does any sensible woman do when she hits rock bottom both physically and emotionally? She heads for home, even if it has been twenty five years since she last lived there.

      Once back in the bosom of her family, Rhoda is working as a freelance editor on a book dealing with the sacred dramatic literature of the fifteenth century (bet that was a bestseller) and making slow progress because of constant interruptions from her father, who has discovered the internet since his retirement. She also experiences matchmaking Mennonite style as her mother tries to fix her up with various males from the community, including Cousin Wally whose hobby is driving his tractor. Rhoda has, in fact, already dipped her toe back into the dating waters and her friend Carla has taken on the task of seeking out a suitable new mate for her. When Rhoda had listed her preferences, Carla sweetly suggested she lower the bar and just look for somebody who's straight. What she got was "Sort of a slacker. A relaxed pothead who wears his pyjamas to the grocery store." Her mother, the eternal optimist, of course thinks she can do much better than that for her daughter.

      This book is written in a very light and conversational style and reads more like a novel than a memoir. Rhoda Janzen was obviously deeply traumatised by the events in her life leading up to her return home and although this unhappy time is written about in a very humorous way with many laughs and throwaway lines, it's possible to see that this is her way of dealing with her emotions. Scratch the surface and there's a heart-sore individual beneath and as the book progresses, we discover that all was really not too well with Rhoda's world, even before things began to implode.

      I learned a fair bit about Mennonite society whilst reading this book and admit if I'd been asked before reading it what a Mennonite was, I'd probably have plumped for it being some kind of fossil dug up on the Jurassic Coast. Mennonites are Anabaptists, a protestant sect, originating from Europe, mainly Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Many of them choose to live 'plain' lives in that they eschew much of the unnecessary trappings of twenty-first century living. They aren't as rigid in their ways as the Amish and neither do they cut themselves off from the rest of society in quite the same way, frequently dressing and working amongst the rest of society. They come across as good people, rather like Quakers, certainly in regard to their pursuit of peace and tolerance and the acceptance that we're all God's children (even those of us that don't believe.)

      The stars of this book are definitely Rhoda's parents and wider family, especially her mother who is an absolute delight. She is the teller of many family anecdotes, a woman so content with her lot in life and happy in the knowledge that God loves her, and that soul-deep contentment seems to spill over onto everybody she comes into contact with.

      Most of the laughs come in the first half of this memoir as though the author had run out of gags by the time she reached the midway point, but the book still managed to hold my interest right to the end. I got the impression that writing this provided some kind of catharsis for Rhoda Janzen, allowing her to work through just where her life was going wrong whilst in the process remembering her childhood days and revising her opinion of the community in which she grew up.

      There are several references throughout the text to items of American life which made me realise just how 'different' from us Americans really are. I'd never heard of many of these essential pieces of Americana but it was still possible to understand the gist of what was being said and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Rhoda and her zany family. It threw a window open onto Mennonite society which was interesting and informative without being at all preachy and it was a pleasure to travel with her on her journey towards reconciliation with her lot in life.

      I bought this in Kindle format for 99p but hard copies are also available from Amazon for a few pennies plus postage.

      Also posted on Ciao under the same user name.

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