Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I spent the weekend in Lancaster, Pa., which I repeatedly and annoyingly refer to as “ze Fatherland.” I was there for a family funeral, and I was stuck with a bad case of insomnia and an abysmal selection of television channels. So I pulled out my Kindle and finished reading Rhoda Janzen’s memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” for a bit of topical entertainment.

Janzen is the rare English professor who can actually write. Nay, she can write really damn well. As a result, I didn’t stop reading this book until 2:30 a.m.

Trying to summarize this book is tough, because the underlying structure is simply Janzen’s account of a few months she spent with her Mennonite family after her life spectacularly imploded, complete with a crushing car accident and her husband dumping her for a man he met on the Internet. It’s intensely personal, but rarely self-indulgent. Even in the depth of the book’s most self-help, you-go-girl, chick-lit sections, Janzen’s self-effacing humor and zinging prose kept me reading.

Whether she is observing that “Mennonites tend to live in clumps” or recalling that “my mother braided my hair so tightly that my eyebrows buckled,” Janzen’s four-bladed wit cartridge scrapes her family for the bulk of the book’s material. While occasionally making her family look cartoonish, she seems to do so out of genuine affection or bewilderment, not spite.

If the book has a major flaw, it is one that can be induced by the reader. Janzen has written a humorous collection of personal anecdotes, not a work of sociology or historical scholarship. She tends to take personal observations and extrapolate them to sweeping generalizations, so take her broad pronouncements about Mennonite life with a bit of perspective. Her Mennonite clan came to America’s west coast by way of Canada and the Ukraine, so her family shares different religious and culinary traditions from those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Her tendency to extrapolate carries over to the history section of the book, where Janzen gives readers a quick and dirty romp through the complexity of Anabaptist history. I e-mailed Janzen with a couple nit-picky questions about this section, and, to my great surprise, she quickly answered, addressing my questions and suggesting additional reading. So, beware this gracious professor, kids. She hands out lots of homework.


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