A daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” goes home
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. Holt, 241 pp., $22.
By Janice Harayda
A librarian here in New Jersey found recently that books about the Amish now outnumber Amish people.* If the attention this memoir is getting is an indication, Mennonites are the new Amish — a paradox given that Mennonites are, in fact, the old Amish: The Amish tradition arose in the late 17th century as an offshoot of the more liberal Mennonite faith.
Rhoda Janzen is a daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” who returned in middle age to the religious community of her youth. She had left it first for “studded black minis, enormous hair, fuchsia lipstick, and preposterously high Manolos” and then for a career as a poet and English professor. But several events drove her back to California, including a serious car accident and a divorce from her husband of 15 years, who left her for a man he met on Gay.com. She describes her sojourn in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a slangy and often amusing report on her experiences in a land of soft two-tiered buns called Zwiebach, served with homemade rhubarb jam. One experience involved the Mennonite equivalent of a pick-up line. Janzen says that a male rocker once approached her in a supermarket parking lot with: “If you’re a single woman of God, I surely wish you’d e-mail me.”
For a self-declared “grammarian,” Janzen shows a oddly shaking command of the nuances of English usage. She uses “shoe-in” for shoo-in, “timber” for timbre and has a weakness for the cute, which shows up when she tries to explain Mennonite views on sex. “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister,” she writes. “Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” Janzen also seems unwilling or unable to reflect deeply on how her strict upbringing might have fed her decision to stay for so long with an emotionally abusive husband. She says she remained in her marriage because her parents never fought during her childhood and getting divorced “was something other people did” — a explanation that isn’t fully persuasive when she had broken by then with many other Mennonite traditions.
But the tone of the book so breezy, you waft though it. And occasionally Janzen lets you see how perceptive she can be when she drops the shtick and describes her life straight up. One such moment occurs when she reconnects with a friend who, though much like her, had stayed within the Mennonite fold and lived a more conventional life within it:
“Here was Eva, who could have made such different choices with her education and career path. Here was I, with my decades of restless travel, my brilliant but tortured ex-husband. And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nests outside my study window.”
*I couldn’t confirm this, and it may refer to number of copies in print, not titles. There are about 225,000 Amish in the U.S. and more than 170,000 books printed.
Best line: No. 1: Janzen on her mother: “This was a woman who had once departed for Hawaii with a frozen fryer in her suitcase, on the theory that the chicken would be thawed by the time her flight landed in Honolulu.” No. 2: The last lines of the review above.
Worst lines: No. 1: “—she patted her heinie significantly.” No. 2: “Al’s enrollment at St. Veronica’s had not been a shoe-in, but Phil and Hannah had decided that Christian guilt was better than bad math.” No. 3: “ With a pattern of dodgy behavior already established, I was a shoe-in for further scrutiny.” No. 4: “Aaron sang close harmonies in a madrigal group, his rich-timbered baritone blending like butter.” No: 5: “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister. Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” No. 6: “I am woman, hear me pee!” No. 7: “Fresh out of grad school, I agreed to be the faculty adviser to a sorority whose members were commonly referred to as ‘the Campus Hotties’ or ‘the Ones in Deep Doo-Doo for Trashing Four Hotel Rooms Again.”
Furthermore: The Wall Street Journal article “They’re No Bodice-rippers, but Amish Romances Are Hot” has more on the boomlet in books about the Amish. Third Way Café has an answer to: “What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”.
Read an excerpt from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress or find the publisher’s reading group guide.
You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she will be tweeting this week about topics that will include the National Book Awards to be announced Nov. 18. Comments about those prizes will also be posted on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.