Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen has all the marks of chick lit, which I don’t usually read. (If that sounds snobbish, let me rush to explain that it’s an age thing: I’m up for some well-written crone lit, actually, if it’s out there.)
Plus, Valerie Weaver-Zercher, reviewing the book in Christian Century, said Janzen “manages to reveal little of consequence about either herself or the church from which she came,” and “her wit at times obscures authentic self-revelation.” I thought I didn’t need to bother with it then.
But I also read other more positive reviews and a discussion of the book at the Center for Mennonite Writing. And, of course, there was the fact that, if chick lit, it was Mennonite chick lit — an oxymoron, perhaps, until now. I learned further that the “going home” of the subtitle was to the Mennonite Brethren, which happens to be my brand of Mennonite, and the author’s father is Edmund Janzen, for some years moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (although author Janzen calls him “head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States…the Mennonite equivalent of the pope”). Don’t most of us like to know what’s being said about “us”?
Given the intrigue of conflicting reviews, then, and my undeniable curiosity, I decided to buy the book and find out for myself.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress opens with three things that happen to Rhoda Janzen in fairly short order: she has a hysterectomy, she has a car accident that leaves her with broken bones, and Nick, her husband of 15 years, leaves her for a guy named Bob. With a six-month sabbatical coming up but the marriage over, Janzen can no longer afford to go elsewhere to study. “Under circumstances like these,” she writes, “what was a forty-three-year-old gal to do?”
“I’ll tell you what I did,” she says. “I went home to the Mennonites…. Bring on the Borscht, I thought.”
Back home — in her parents’ home in California, that is – Janzen spends time with her mother, father, and siblings. She re-lives bits of her childhood, meets various new men, and tries to get over the loss of Nick and her marriage. She has a lot of fun with it all, picks up some wisdom about her situation, and ends misty-eyed over her “people.”
For me, reading this book was a literary version of the daisy-petal-plucking game. I liked it, I liked it not, I liked it, I…
I liked Janzen’s smart, nervy voice, and much of her humour. There’s so much about marriage and families and teachers and growing up in general that’s really very funny. I didn’t mind the humour at the expense of the Mennonites, and even the scorn at the expense of their faith left me relatively undisturbed. Hers is a broad-stroke, mostly superficial, kind of humour – familiar stuff about Mennonite food or their anti-dancing. And if I couldn’t laugh at it, I sighed instead. (Sometimes it seemed just so much bravado.)
Even the things she got wrong (such as the denomination’s name, as above), and the lack of nuance about Mennonitism and its diversity, could be assumed as creative inattention or conflation for her non-Mennonite audience and a comedic genre. Besides, this never quite seemed a memoir of going home to the Mennonites as much as a memoir of getting over the marriage. And if being with the folks and writing in a “hideous red fur robe” made by her mother — a garment so unlike those of her previous sophisticated married life — was Mennonite in some respect, the important thing is, it was good for her. It helped!
But I didn’t like the humour when it felt mean. Janzen writes a chapter on “wounding words” she experienced but she delivers more than a few herself throughout the book, it seemed to me, especially about identifiable members of her family. I first realized I might land on the opposite of the author’s jokes now and then when I found myself sticking up for the senior Mrs. Janzen in an (admittedly) odd conversation between daughter and mother. “She will follow you anywhere, conversationally speaking,” Janzen reveals, and then sets her mother up for further folly. Perhaps I’m being generationally sensitive, but isn’t this what mothers do — follow their children around, conversationally?
Shirley Showalter, in a great review essay of the book here, calls the portrait of Janzen’s mother, Mary, “brilliant.” She’s “so ego-free and so unconcerned about normal barriers between public and private life that we, too, can relax,” she writes, “and enjoy the…earth-mother love.” I confess I felt more ambivalent, however, than relaxed. Would she really not mind having the silliest of her conversations published, really not mind having her head described as “sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce” because she has no neck? (As for Mother Janzen’s flatulence, I’d say: leave it for the crone lit writers). I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t a mirroring of acquiescence to insult here, expressed by both mother and daughter in different ways.
I liked Janzen’s honesty, about so many things that went wrong for her and Nick, about the fact that she still loved him, about her own complicity in the marriage’s failure (or at least in putting up with his treatment of her as long as she did). Sometimes, for small stretches, Janzen would step aside from the heavy humour and I liked these more serious parts because there was something wise and vulnerable about them. Also, at times, her critique felt deeper and hinted at issues worth leaving over, or at least needing challenge, in the culture of church. Matters such as, “When I was a young woman, the Mennonites would have recoiled with fear and loathing before the thought of a female pastor, and even now…”
I didn’t like that the ending came as a surprise. In the final scene, standing in the middle of a group of singing Mennonite seniors, Janzen feels the music “gentle as a hand on the small of the back, nudging me forward – the sound of my heritage, my future.”
“My future”? When I paged back through the book I could trace hints of the narrative arc, yes, towards this acceptance of her heritage. But they had registered too quietly beside the much stronger tone of the humourous, or mocking, justifications for rejecting it. I simply hadn’t expected such a cheerful conclusion. In an interview at TIME, Janzen says of her return that it’s no surprise she loved her parents, for she remembered them as “congenial folks” but she was surprised that she “loved what they stood for – I loved the faith itself, and the way they consistently demonstrated what they believed.” But this was not the book’s abiding impression on me. The reason, I think, is the inconsistency, unevenness, in tone, which an editor should have caught.
Last daisy petal standing: I liked that Rhoda Janzen went “home,” that she gave this story a go. I’m glad, for her sake, that she’s sold a lot of books. I’m also glad that her foray into memoir, or chick lit, whatever it may be, has provoked useful discussion about how we could, or should, be telling our stories.
For further reading about the controversy around this book, and about Janzen’s forthcoming book, see: “Memoir of going home is acclaimed, critiqued” and “‘Mennonite’ author pens second book,” both at Mennonite Weekly Review.