Rhoda Janzen was having a really bad year. Following her recovery from a hysterectomy, Janzen’s handsome, charismatic, but mercurial husband of 15 years abruptly left her for “Bob the Guy from Gay.com,” leaving her with conflicted feelings—and an expensive lakefront home she couldn’t afford. Just days later, Janzen was involved in a crippling car accident. What was this sophisticated, confident woman in her early 40s to do? With a six-month sabbatical scheduled, Janzen made a most unexpected choice—to head back home, into the welcoming arms of the Mennonite family and community she thought she had nothing in common with.
Janzen’s period of healing—in both body and spirit—forms the backdrop of her memoir, as she utilizes her quasi-outsider perspective to reflect on her own story of growing up Mennonite (and the social ostracism that sometimes resulted), on her often troubled marriage and on her sometimes strained relationships with her siblings. Even as she affectionately pokes fun at such things as her father’s bold demands and her mother’s unflaggingly earnest optimism, Janzen reflects on how her Mennonite upbringing might have affected her own relationships and on how she’s managed to incorporate the cabbage- and starch-laden cuisine of her youth into her cosmopolitan, foodie lifestyle.
Readers will find themselves laughing out loud at Janzen’s wry commentary on themes that shouldn’t really be funny at all. The playful humor is balanced, however, with genuine thoughtfulness, especially as Janzen reconnects with childhood companions and reflects on how different her own life might have been, had she chosen to remain in the Mennonite community instead of embracing an intellectual life. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress will resonate with any reader who has ever thought about how such choices shape our futures, or with anyone who has struggled to recapture faith—in God, in other people or in oneself.
Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.