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

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

3.1 315
by Rhoda Janzen

View All Available Formats & Editions

"It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I'm reading, but Janzen's voice—singular, deadpan, sharp-witted and honest—slayed me." —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he


"It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I'm reading, but Janzen's voice—singular, deadpan, sharp-witted and honest—slayed me." —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on, but that same week a car accident left her injured. Needing a place to rest and pick up the pieces of her life, Rhoda packed her bags, crossed the country, and returned to her quirky Mennonite family's home, where she was welcomed back with open arms and offbeat advice. (Rhoda's good-natured mother suggested she get over her heartbreak by dating her first cousin—he owned a tractor, see.)

Written with wry humor and huge personality—and tackling faith, love, family, and aging—Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an immensely moving memoir of healing, certain to touch anyone who has ever had to look homeward in order to move ahead.

Editorial Reviews

Kate Christensen
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound, and poetic without trying. In fact, the whole book reads as if Janzen had dictated it to her best non-Menno friend, in her bathrobe, over cups of tea…Her tone reminds me of Garrison Keillor's deadpan, affectionate, slightly hyperbolic stories about urbanites and Minnesota Lutherans, and also of the many Jewish writers who've brought mournful humor to the topics of gefilte fish and their own mothers, as well as to the secular, often urban, often intellectual world they call home now. It's the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up. Her 15-year relationship with Nick had always been punctuated by manic outbursts and verbally abusive behavior, so recognizing her co-dependent role in their marriage becomes an important part of Janzen's recovery (even as she tweaks the 12 steps just a bit). The healing is further assisted by her decision to move back in with her Mennonite parents, prompting her to look at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes. (She provides an appendix for those unfamiliar with Mennonite culture, as well as a list of “shame-based foods” from hot potato salad to borscht.) Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
The author takes stock of the tribulations, tragedy and hilarity that has shaped her experiences thus far, reexamining religious roots, familial influences and personal choices. Janzen (English and Creating Writing/Hope Coll.; poems: Babel's Stair, 2006) excavates her past with the might of a backhoe and the finesse of an archaeologist's brush. Lines as jolting as "Nick had been drinking and offering to kill me and then himself," about her troubled ex-husband, are tempered by poignant moments of grace during her recovery from a debilitating accident: "Because I couldn't raise my right arm, students sprang up to take notes on the board." The author's relatives feature prominently throughout the narrative, her mother's quirky sensibilities bubbling over in merry nuggets of old-fashioned, home-spun wisdom. Punctuating overarching themes of blithe humor and Mennonite values are brief glimpses of raw despair, which Janzen eloquently, albeit briefly, explores. The recurring question of whether her abusive former spouse ever loved her is found in numerous contexts-solemn, analytical, even whimsical. After hesitantly re-entering the dating world, the author faced the revelation that she is woefully codependent by creating her own 12-step program, with directives such as "Step Two: Sit Down at the Computer with Wild Medusa Hair" and "Step Ten: Branch Out from Borscht." Within the humor, Janzen offers depictions of calamity and dark truths about regrettable relationships. Unfortunately, the closing primer on Mennonite history falls flat. A buoyant, somewhat mordant ramble through triumphs, upheavals and utter normalcy. Agent: Michael Bourret/Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
From the Publisher

“This book is not just beautiful and intelligent, but also painfully -- even wincingly -- funny. It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I'm reading, but Rhoda Janzen's voice -- singular, deadpan, sharp-witted and honest -- slayed me, with audible results. I have a list already of about fourteen friends who need to read this book. I will insist that they read it. Because simply put, this is the most delightful memoir I've read in ages.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

“This is an intelligent, funny, wonderfully written memoir. Janzen has a gift for following her elegant prose with the perfect snarky aside. If it weren't for the weird Mennonite food, I would like very much to be her friend.” —Cynthia Kaplan, author of Why I'm Like This and Leave the Building Quickly

author of Why I'm Like This and Leave the Buildin Cynthia Kaplan
This is an intelligent, funny, wonderfully written memoir. Janzen has a gift for following her elegant prose with the perfect snarky aside. If it weren't for the weird Mennonite food, I would like very much to be her friend.

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

A Memoir of Going Home
By Janzen, Rhoda

Holt Paperbacks

Copyright © 2010 Janzen, Rhoda
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805092257


The Bridegroom Cousin

The year I turned forty-three was the year I realized I should have never taken my Mennonite genes for granted. I’d long assumed that I had been genetically scripted to robust physical health, like my mother, who never even catches a head cold. All of my relatives on her side, the Loewens, enjoy preternaturally good health, unless you count breast cancer and polio. The polio is pretty much a done deal, thanks to Jonas Salk and his talent for globally useful vaccinations. Yet in the days before Jonas Salk, when my mother was a girl, polio crippled her younger brother Abe and also withered the arm of her closest sister Gertrude. Trude bravely went on to raise two kids one-armed, and to name her withered arm Stinky.

_____ Yes, I think "Stinky" is a cute name for a withered arm!

_____ No, I’d prefer to name my withered arm something with a little more dignity, such as Reynaldo.

Although breast cancer also runs in my family, it hasn’t played a significant role. It comes to us late in life, shriveling a tit or two, and then often subsiding under the composite resistance of chemo and buttermilk. That is, it would shrivel our tits if we had tits. Which we don’t.

As adolescents, mysister Hannah and I were naturally anxious to see if we would turn out more like our mother or our father. There was a lot at stake. Having endured a painfully uncool childhood, we realized that our genetic heritage positioned us on a precarious cusp. Dad was handsome but grouchy; Mom was plain but cheerful. Would we be able to pass muster in normal society, or would our Mennonite history forever doom us to outsider status?

My father, once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, is the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. In the complex moral universe that is Mennonite adulthood, a Mennonite can be good-looking and still have no sartorial taste whatsoever. My father may actually be unaware that he is good-looking. He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount. Would God be pleased if we spent an unnecessary thirty-one cents at McDonald’s? I think not.

At six foot five and classically handsome, Dad has an imposing stature that codes charismatic elocution and a sobering, insightful air of authority. I’ve considered the possibility that his wisdom and general seriousness make him seem handsomer than he actually is, but whatever the reason, Dad is one of those people to whom everybody listens. No matter who you are, you do not snooze through this man’s sermons. Even if you are an atheist, you find yourself nodding and thinking, Preach it, mister!

Well, not nodding. Maybe you imagine you’re nodding. But in this scenario you are in a Mennonite church, which means you sit very still and worship Jesus with all your heart, mind, and soul, only as if a snake had bitten you, and you are now in the last stages of paralysis.

I may be the first person to mention my father’s good looks in print. Good looks are considered a superfluous feature in a Mennonite world leader, because Mennonites are all about service. Theoretically, we do not even know what we look like, since a focus on our personal appearance is vainglorious. Our antipathy to vainglory explains the decision of many of us to wear those frumpy skirts and the little doilies on our heads, a decision we must have arrived at only by collectively determining not to notice what we had put on that morning.

My mother, unlike my father, is not classically handsome. But she does enjoy good health. She is as buoyant as a lark on a summer’s morn. Nothing gets this woman down. She is the kind of mother who, when we were growing up, came singing into our bedrooms at 6:00 a.m., tunefully urging us to rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. And this was on Saturday, Saturday. Upbeat she is. Glamorous she is not. Once she bought Hannah a black T-shirt that said in glittery magenta cursive, NASTY!! She didn’t know what it meant. When we told her, she said sunnily, "Oh well, then you can wear it to work in the garden!"

Besides being born Mennonite, which is usually its own beauty strike, my mother has no neck. When we were growing up, our mother’s head, sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce, became something of a family focus. We’d take every opportunity to thrust hats and baseball caps upon her, which made us all shriek with unconscionable laughter. Mom would laugh good-naturedly, but if we got too out of hand, she’d predict that our Loewen genes would eventually assert themselves.

And they did. Although I personally have and appreciate a neck, I was, by my early forties, the very picture of blooming Loewen health: peasant-cheeked, impervious to germs, hearty as an ox. I rarely got sick. And the year before the main action of this memoir occurs, I had sustained a physical debilitation—I won’t say illness—so severe that I thought I was statistically safe for years to come.

I was only forty-two at the time, but my doctor advised a radical salpingo-oopherectomy. For the premenopausal set, that translates to "Your uterus has got to go." A hushed seriousness hung in the air when the doctor first broached the subject of the hysterectomy.

I said, "You mean dump my whole uterus? Ovaries and everything?"

"Yes, I’m afraid so."

I considered a moment. I knew I should be feeling a kind of feminist outrage, but it wasn’t happening. "Okay."

Dr. Mayler spoke some solemn words about a support group. From his tone I gathered that I also ought to be feeling a profound sense of loss, and a cosmic unfairness that this was happening to me at age forty-two, instead of at age—what?—fifty-six? I dutifully wrote down the contact information for the support group, thinking that maybe I was in denial again. Maybe the seriousness and the pathos of the salpingo-oopherectomy would register later. By age forty-two I had learned that denial was my special modus operandi. Big life lessons always kicked in tardily for me. I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer, a slow learner. The postman has to ring twice, if you get my drift.

My husband, who got a vasectomy two weeks after we married, was all for the hysterectomy. "Do it," he urged. "Why do you need that thing? You don’t use it, do you?"

In general, Nick’s policy was, if you haven’t used it in a year, throw it out. We lived in homes with spare, ultramodern decor. Once he convinced me to furnish a coach house with nothing but a midcentury dining table and three perfect floor cushions. You know the junk drawer next to the phone? Ours contained a single museum pen and a pad of artisan paper on a Herman Miller tray.

Nick therefore supported the hysterectomy, but only on the grounds of elegant understatement. To him the removal of unnecessary anatomical parts was like donating superfluous crap to Goodwill. Had the previous owners left a beer raft in the garage, as a thoughtful gift to you? No thanks! We weren’t the type of people who would store a beer raft in our garage—not because we opposed beer rafts per se, but because we did not want to clutter an uncompromising vista of empty space. Nick led the charge to edit our belongings, but I willingly followed. Had you secretly been wearing the same bra since 1989? Begone, old friend! Were you clinging to a sentimental old wedding dress? Heave ho! Nick’s enthusiasm for the hysterectomy made me a little nervous. I kept taking my internal temperature, checking for melancholy. The medical literature I was reading told me I should be fe


Excerpted from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Janzen, Rhoda Copyright © 2010 by Janzen, Rhoda. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Meet the Author

Rhoda Janzen is the author of Babel's Stair, a collection of poems. Her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 315 reviews.
KDScarlette More than 1 year ago
I had read the free sample of this book before my purchase and thought the sample unique enough to give it a try. The deeper I got into this book, the sadder I felt for the author but not due to her tempestuous marriage and Mennonite background. She is lost in a convoluted world of what to believe in, so she believes in bits and pieces of any and everything to which she has ever been exposed. So, her writing style mirrors this. It jumps hither and yon never staying in one place too long, thus the reader loses interest. It's like the author suffers from ADHD and invited us for the ride while she reminisces. While reading the sample, this tendency seemed, at first, to be quirky and funny. After half of the book she just seemed as if she was hiding behind her large vocabulary and her disdain for those less educated. This is her story and she can tell it in the manner in which she chooses, however in retrospect I wish I hadn't gone along for the ride.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely adored this book. I think it helps to be a Mennonite who also married a non-Mennonite and who's relatives emigrated to the USA and Canada. I laughed so hard. The food memories are especially hilarious. I gave this book to my daughter who was definitely raised in a non Mennonite culture but still has close ties to Mennonite relatives, and she enjoyed it as much as I did. I plan, with some trepidation to give it to my 86 year old mother, but I think she will love it too. A very fun read.
RufusRW More than 1 year ago
The book had some funny-ish stories/moments, but the author spent an awful lot of time showing off her vast vocabulary and trying to be insightful. She went off on a lot of tangents and then some how found her way bcak to the actual story. Sometimes it was difficult to even remember what the heck she had been talking about in the first place. This book was all over the place.
JanetRuth More than 1 year ago
This book is a very different kind of memoir, and I have mixed feelings about it. While very humorous at times, I also found parts of it to be extremely vulgar. Raised as a Mennonite, the author is relentless in attacking the faith and traditions of her family. Her accounts of family gatherings and the food they ate were very funny, but I couldn't help but wonder if it could all be true. Some of the family vacations as a child left me shaking my head, especially the stories of her mother and her weird sense of humour. If you want a look at the true and personal life of a traditional Mennonite family, you might want to look a bit further than A Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. However, if you want to look at the bizarre interactions between members of a very colorful family, then you might really enjoy this book.
SallyGCA More than 1 year ago
I admit that I'm a sucker for a good memoir but this is above average due to the exceptional writing and the subject matter. Rhoda Janzen is a wonderful prose stylist, using lovely metaphorical language without appearing to try to hard. Just as appealing is how she deals with the sometimes difficult subject matter of her relationship with her ex-husband. She uses a light tough that nonetheless does not diminish the importance of the experience. She also writes about her own family with refreshing affection and love. The memoir left me happy and hopeful without drowning me in saccharine.
vladamir More than 1 year ago
Fairly well written with a lot of wit and acerbic humor. I was hoping for more and was left feeling like i had just read mostly fluff. While the topic was rich with possibilities and the humor potential was huge it seemed like the author just skimmed the surface. Interesting and fun none the less.
Twink More than 1 year ago
Rhoda Janzen is 40ish English professor. She is married to Nick, successful and happy. Well, at least she thought she was... "Which is all to say that given the surprising events of the Year of the Pee Bag, I assumed I was safe from ill heath and trauma for decades. But no." "Two months after the move to the expensive lakefront property, Nick left me for a guy he'd met on (Yep - it's real) So, with the thing and some health issues, Janzen moves back to her parent's home to gather herself together. Janzen was brought up in the Mennonite church, but chose to not actively pursue the Mennonite life and faith as an adult. Her parents are very active in the church. When she goes home,we are treated (and I say treated because this is one of the best memoirs I've read) to an intimate look at her family, friends, community and her childhood memories. Janzen's voice is fresh and funny, witty, wry and warm. I can't remember the last time I laughed so much reading a book. Janzen puts it all out there - she is brutally honest in revealing the shortcomings in her marriage and her part in it. No subject is sacrosanct. Body functions, sex, friendships, family, community, religion, food - you name it. I enjoyed 'meeting' her family - especially her mother, who has a perpetual sunny outlook on life, no matter what. The descriptions of Mennonite life were fascinating. Janzen's exploration of her life and her future, by calling on her past make for a riveting read. I absolutely loved it. A memoir you must read and then pass on to every one of your friends. The publisher, Henry Holt, has lots of extras - photos, reading guide, audio and video as well. Oh and some Mennonite recipes too.
MimiLefay More than 1 year ago
Well, the reviews for this are all over the place. Understandable really, it's memoir, but rather than be filled with pathos, it is filled with humor. I don't recall the book being all over the place, but it wasn't a linear read either and if that is what someone was looking for, then this book isn't for them. I really enjoyed the storytelling tone of the book and how when she wrote about something in the now, it brought back memories from her childhood. I enjoyed seeing how her Mennonite family has evolved and learned some stuff about the Mennonites and the Amish that I did not know. However, what I truly loved about this story was how much she is still her mother's child and that no matter how far afield she has gone, her upbringing supports her through the darkest of times. I loved the fact that even though she no longer follows the Mennonite teachings, her family has not turned their backs on her. This book made me laugh, tear up in a few places and is another book I gave to my mom to read. We aren't Mennonites, but in the author's relationships with her family, I saw my own.
mwallslawson More than 1 year ago
I was surprised this was advertised as one of the books that Barnes and Noble claimed to fall in love with... I received this as an ARC and it was easily the most disappointing one that I've received. Jansen tries too hard to be entertaining to offset the dire series of events that led her to return to Mennonite culture, and most of the book seems to be an unrelated series of anachronistic anecdotes that are only pulled together in the last twenty pages. Those last twenty pages were great, but the novel as a whole bears the marks of a writer who was hurriedly attempting to push out a product to make her sabbatical worthwhile.
charlottesweb93 More than 1 year ago
Like other memoirs I have read recently, Mennonite In A Little Black Dress did not have me laughing out loud. There may have been a chuckle here or there, but not enough for me to tell you to run right out and buy it. If you have any interest in this culture, then you might be interested in reading this book. But do not expect it to be reverent and respectful, it is a book that has an entire chapter devoted to farts. And that wasn't even a chapter that evoked chuckling. I will say that the most interesting part of the book was the Appendix. A Mennonite History Primer covers a lot of the myths and misconceptions about the Mennonite Faith. For that, I am glad I read the book.
Peanut61 More than 1 year ago
The title gives you the impression you will learn a lot about Mennonites and the hilarious antics of a woman who leaves the church for the modern world. Sorry to disappoint. You do learn a little about one group of Mennonites - a very little. And there are a few antics (most seem to involve unbelievably shocking situations and crass language) but more whining and self-soothing sympathy seeking. And the few charming moments of childhood memories are not as unique as you might expect.
goodgirlheroineaddict More than 1 year ago
Rhoda Janzen has a humorous way with words and the book is worth reading just for the dialogue. It was surprisingly educational as well - I feel like I have come away with a little bit better understanding of the Mennonite and Amish way of life (never realized their relationship.) If you are athiest or non-theist, you will chuckle at many of the descriptions...I felt a little like I was watching the movie Fargo (without the murders.) If you are of any of the many Christian sects, you may feel a bit uncomfortable or sacriligious in continuing to read Janzen's negative description of her prior faith. It felt a little disrespectful to her heritage...even if she no longer followed the religious teaching of her youth. I kept wincing thing about what her parents/family must be thinking.
peggy54 More than 1 year ago
The author goes back and forth between revealing her poor life choices and sneering at those of us in the illiterati who didn't have the opportunity (or, worse, the interest)to get a doctorate in literature. I was on the fence about this until she mocked a neighbor who had lent the author's mother a popular and intellectually inferior book. A misguided act of kindness didn't deserve the contempt expressed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was intrigued by the premise and loved the title so bought. However, the book's a little choppy. Doesn't flow too well. Wasn't the "can't put it down, absorbing" read that I was hoping for.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A witty yet droll look at family and friends. She says what others think but never voice. I get it! Apparently some reviewers here did not. It requires a certain sense of humor and willingness to appreciate differences.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being an individual who is borderline obsessed with Mennonite and Amish cultures, I was really excited to read this book. Unfortunately, I couldn't even get through it. The author writes in such a conversational manner that nothing ever flows. It's a compilation of stories that bump into one another, but never manage to make a point. This one is going into the yard sale bin. Hopefully someone else will be able to enjoy it; but it's definitely not for me!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My daughter was assigned to read this book in her senior lit class. I try to read what she reads so that we can discuss, (our little two man book club of sorts). After Zeitoun and the Kite Runner (both great books) I was ready for something lighter. To the point this book was just awful. The author came across pretentious and condescending. Kids have something they called a compliment sandwich, wrap two weak compliments around a scathing criticism to mitigate the impact of the critique. The food taste good, smells like fart/looks like vomit and is a hit at trendy parties. This is how the author chose to deal with the cultural traditions of the Mennonites. This book served as a soap box on which the author could expound her revised beliefs and mock the religion and tradition that formed her. Folks..There is no story here. This book is a rudderless boat without direction or destination. Just a disjointed retelling. Their is no humor here, just a dry attempt of infusing her black cloud with sun rays that do not penetrate. Perhaps the trauma of taking lunch in margarine bowls, (umm you should check out our breakroom fridge), formed the author into the prada wearing jetsetter she became.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very crude,trying-to-be-funny book....definately NOT a recommend!!:(
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although it seems like she is showinf off her vocabulary, this is a frank and fresh account. Lightly funny.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like other reviewers have said, this book starts out being funny and poignant but quickly fizzles. We don't get a sense of closure or ending. Instead, I was surprised when I read the last page, thinking, "that's it?!". Overall I was pretty disappointed with the second half, and with the book as a whole.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was not crazy about this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago