Rhoda Janzen has a Ph.D., teaches at a college, and has been the University of California Poet Laureate, but when her life fell apart, she returned home to her parents and a simpler life in their Mennonite family in order to put herself back together. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is her memoir, the story of her return home.
Janzen admits she should have left her husband years before her marriage ended. He was bipolar, and she lived with his depression, changing herself to meet his demands. She should have left when he told her he didn't care what happened to her. Instead, Nick left her when he met a guy named Bob on Gay.com. The same week, she was hit head-on by a drunk driver. At 43, she had broken bones, broken ribs, a broken marriage and life. She went home to California, to the Mennonites.
By this time in her life, her father had retired as head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States (the Mennonite equivalent of the pope.) Her mother was a nurse, a serene woman who accepted her rebellious daughter, a warm woman who always found the bright side in life.
Rhoda Janzen chronicles the story of her early life in a Mennonite home, including stories of embarrassment in the dress she wore to school, and the school lunches she carried. Even in those early years, she yearned for a glamorous life outside of the Mennonite lifestyle. Her education and her marriage moved her farther away from that life. But, she admits to the peacefulness in the harmony and music of the Mennonite life, a world that recognizes simplicity, home cooked food, prayer, and peace, a life of service. It takes a while, but she claims that life as her heritage.
Janzen spends quite a bit of time in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress analyzing her marriage. That aspect of the book becomes a little tedious, but it's natural for her to go into detail, with the length of the marriage, and the hurt she suffered. On the other hand, the story of her recuperation at her parents' home is fascinating. Most of us know little about the Mennonites, and she includes a humorous chapter examining the history of the sect, including the difference between Mennonites and the Amish.
In the end, Janzen finds peace with her past, and her life. Her return home was restorative. She comes to terms with the destruction of her marriage. Her sister and friends help her to move on. But, it's her mother, and the gentleness of the Mennonites themselves, that seem to bring her to acceptance. It's a story I'd recommend to book groups interested in memoirs. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is Rhoda Janzen's memoir, but it's also an acknowledgement that she might have missed something growing up as a Mennonite, something invaluable to adult life.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen. Henry Holt & Company, ©2009. ISBN 9780805089257 (hardcover), 256p.
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