Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Jenzen

Any book that opens with the author having to undergo a hysterectomy has me hooked. I had one and nothing says ma soeur like matching scars.

Aside from the nascent bonding over major surgery, Rhoda Janzen’s memoir of her Mennonite childhood also rings a lot of similar bells. I didn’t grow up Mennonite, but I did grow up the child of immigrants, and I share many of her social disconnects. Ms. Janzen fills this memoir with many references to dishes that are particular to Mennonite culture. My mother’s refrigerator never had a can of Coke in it until she bought a six-pack in response to my childrens' request for “soda.” She grew up in dairy country in Ireland where beverages consisted of either milk or booze. Since she wasn’t in the habit of pouring her children a pint, we drank milk at all three meals. I imagine Ms. Janzen can relate. In addition, she has a mother that sounds a lot like my mother. My mother isn’t religious, but she might as well be. Ms. Janzen’s mother hands out hugs with jars of strawberry jam; my mother hugs and then knits, whatever, for whomever. And yes, my family have the same sort of inbred discussions that she has at her family table: the obligatory rehashing of old gossip, with a fresh helping of new gossip, what the relatives are up to, what the neighbors are up to, etc.

So much of this memoir I connected with on a fundamental level.

The good: Clearly this writer is smart and adept at writing. I feel the need to say this because, alas (she uses that construction as well; how much we have in common in terms of style is a little creepy), good writing is in short supply these days. She salts info dumps on Mennonite culture throughout this memoir and yet they don’t feel like info dumps. The snippets glide and out of the general story and by the end of the book, by golly, you know a ton about Mennonite culture. This is shockingly hard to do, and I very much appreciated the skill it took to not make it seem like Mennonite 1A. Part of this deft slight of hand is accomplished because she’s damn amusing. Yes, this book is funny, witty, and well written.

The bad: This book scored many points as I chuckled through paragraph after paragraph and yet. It starts off the hysterectomy. The admittedly difficult husband proves to be quite adept at dealing with ensuing medical nightmares, only to abandon her for another man. The joke about her getting dumped by her husband for another guy gets far too much play, especially when we realize three-quarters of the way through the book that this husband had a sexual relationship with another man before they were married. At that point all those previous tee hees about and “Bob” seem a little hollow.

Post dump she spends her sabbatical with her parents. The disconnect between the humor and the reality in this book creates a gap that the author has trouble filling. We have many pages devoted to lovely and funny family interaction during this sabbatical. (I mean really funny; I snorted milk through my nose reading about the Scrabble game and you can believe that the next time I play Scrabble, I’m going to present lionhairs as a legitimate word). As the memoir progresses, however, the previous humorous asides on the husband cannot hide how toxic this marriage was. I came away wondering, why did you abandon these charming people for that asshole? I don’t believe she ever answers that question successfully. Because it was obvious that while married she must have lived a compartmentalized life, visiting her family without the uber controlling, disapproving, judgmental Nick. I’m reaching here, but I guess the point is that it worked both ways. By marrying him, she escaped the family dynamic that wouldn’t have readily accepted her as the intellectual free spirit that Nick approved (and leeched off of).

As the novels progresses, the ugly truth about her marriage arrives in drips and drabs. By the end of the book we are madly in love with her family, and she finishes the book with the conclusion that she's come “home.” In light of the charming portrayals of her family (even the odd childhood isn’t that odd; I, too, wore weird clothes because my mother didn’t know any differently and bought me weird clothes), by the end of this novel we’re asking ourselves, “What in the hell took you so long?” There is no clear understanding why she hitches her star to this handsome, charming, bi-polar jerk. I found myself looking for clues that she didn’t provide. I suppose it was because he offered an escape. Someone who would support her determined quest that was in flagrant opposition to everything her Mennonite culture championed. It was also someone who reinforced the strict hierarchical, paternal construct she grew up with. I was looking for—and didn’t find—her own epiphany that her parents determining what she wore as a child and teenager in homage to her Mennonite tenets was no different—at least in my eyes—to her husband picking out her wardrobe in homage to his dictates about what was chic.

It is not until the last third of the book do we see how truly grim her marriage was; their relationship and his subsequent flight isn’t really the stuff of humor. I think that there is another story lurking here that isn’t funny at all. A story about a woman who is caught between two worlds destined to collide, the collateral damage a given. Only once is there a scene where her lack of faith and chosen lifestyle is an issue, and that's with brothers that she admits are practical strangers. I think that since faith is such a driving force in her immediate family that less effort might have been paid to the lying about being allergic to raisins versus being an agnostic with a father who she acknowledges is the Mennonite equivalent of the Pope. She ends this book with the conviction that she’s come home, but I’m not sure that she made a compelling argument as to why she had to leave. Thanks to Ashley Pattison of Henry Holt and Co. for the ARC.



Pen and Prejudice (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Roux Morgue (available in hard cover, trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Beat Until Stiff (available in trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)


Poisoned Pen Press

Mystery Writers of America

Sisters in Crime Northern California Chapter

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