Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen; published 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
It’s no wonder that this book was a New York Times Bestseller. Janzen has a unique voice: full of deadpan humor and wit. I think one of the reviews on the cover says it best: “She is a terrific, pithy, beautiful writer, a reliable, sympathetic narrator, and a fantastically good sport.”—Kate Christensen
Janzen’s life reads at times like a horrible, real-life series of unfortunate events, but told with such humor that you can’t help but laugh. Her bipolar husband of 15 years leaves her for a guy and then, a few days later, she is critically injured in a car accident. Suddenly she is heartbroken, physically unable to move, and saddled with the mortgage for their expensive lake house as well as her medical bills. What’s a girl to do? She goes home to her Mennonite family in California.
My favorite part of this book is Janzen’s interactions with her mother. Talk about a quirky woman. Here’s what Janzen says: “One of the best things about my mother is that she will follow you anywhere, conversationally speaking. She will answer any question at all, the stranger the better. Naturally, I cannot resist asking her things that no normal person would accept.” Janzen’s mother is Mennonite (obviously), but she was also a nurse, so she is unashamed to talk about bodily functions and health. As you can imagine, this leads to some pretty hilarious discussions.
I loved learning about part of Mennonite culture. In fact, Janzen includes a tell-all appendix called “A Mennonite History Primer.” She rightly assumes that most readers confuse the Mennonites with the Amish, and she quickly sets us straight. The Amish actually split from the Mennonites because they thought the Mennonites were too liberal. It might surprise modern readers who associate Christians with the far Right to find a Christian sect that is, in many ways, quite Left. They’re antiwar and anticonsumer, living peaceful lives in simplicity. I particularly like the fact that they take seriously their belief that they are first citizens of heaven, and second citizens of Earth and whatever country they are in. “[Unquestioning institutional loyalty seems] too much like mindless nationalism, and Mennonites, with their pledge to peacemaking, felt uneasy about promising loyalty for the sheer sake of loyalty. While they believed in loving and serving one’s country, they reserved the right to question any institution capable of legislating war.” I think the Mennonites are very wise in this way.
Janzen’s own beliefs have strayed far from her Mennonite roots and landed somewhere near Elizabeth Gilbert’s strand of “spirituality.” I think she exhibits one of the most popular heresies of our time: The goal is to not hurt others; so as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, why not practice whatever you want? Everyone is on a different path that leads to the same place. Many believe in a perfect, all-loving God—but a just and righteous God who judges the whole world? That’s the part people have a hard time with. And it’s certainly not easy to understand. But it’s still true.
I wouldn’t read this book again. It’s funny, sure, but I think that Janzen’s amorphous and blase attitude toward life provides only a sandy foundation for her book to rest on. The book will not stand the test of time; in fact, it’s already begun to wash away.