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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
by Rhoda Janzen
Paperback : 272 pages
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"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 Gay.com, 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 ReviewNo editorial review at this time.
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. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion QuestionsFrom the publisher:
1. Rhoda's parents are deeply religious. What are some of the more notable ways their faith manifests itself? What qualities do they possess that you admire? Were you surprised by anything you learned about the Mennonite community?
2. The lover named Bob pops up with an almost incantatory persistence, like a refrain. Do you think it would be harder to be left for a man or a woman? Given that Rhoda returns to the lover's gender again and again, what do you think Rhoda would say?
3. Consider the marriages portrayed in this book. Rhoda and Nick remain together fifteen years; Mary and Si, more than forty-four years; Hannah and Phil, eleven years. Does the book make any tacit suggestions about what makes a good marriage? Do you know of any marriages that make you say, " want what they have"?
4. Consider Rhodas family gatherings on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Would you describe this as a functional or a dysfunctional family dynamic? Rhoda and her siblings are very different from one another — do they get along better than you would expect, or not?
5. Rhoda does not explicitly state that her parents opposed her marriage to an intellectual atheist, but we may infer that with their deeply held religious convictions, they grieved for Rhoda's future. Do you think that Rhoda's parents would have opened their home to Nick, if he had wished to become a part of the family? What should loving parents do when their child chooses unwisely?
6. Rhoda announces early on in the memoir that her husband left her for a man he met on Gay.com; however, as the book progresses, she slowly reveals that her marriage had been troubled for some time, and that she knew Nick was bisexual before they were married. Does this revelation change your perspective? Can we sympathize with a woman who knowingly entered into a marriage with a bisexual man? Do you think Rhoda's piecemeal revelations mimic the way in which Rhoda comes to terms with the end of her marriage? Why do you think the book is structured this way?
7. To what extent is this a memoir about growing up? Rhoda humorously relates her embarrassment at having to eat "shame-based foods" at school as a child — but admits that as an adult, she enjoys them. Similarly, she looks back fondly on other experiences that were likely not very pleasant at the time — setting off a yard bomb inside the van she was sleeping in on a camping trip, for one. Are there other examples you can think of? Do you think this kind of nostalgia — a willingness to appreciate and poke fun at bad memories — is something that's indicative of maturity, of adulthood? Or is it a dodge, a way to avoid facing unpleasant truths?
8. The Mennonites disapprove of dancing and drinking alcohol. Rhoda says that while growing up, radios, eight-track tapes, unsupervised television, Lite-Brites, and Barbies — among other things — were all forbidden. Does her family gain anything positive by limiting "wordly" influences? Did Rhoda and her siblings lose anything in being so sheltered? What "wordly" influences would you try to protect your children from today?
9. Some Mennonites disapprove of higher education. Do you think that a career in academia necessarily precludes one from faith? How does Rhoda reconcile the two?
10. Rhoda's mother is, as Rhoda puts it, "as buoyant as a lark on a summer's morn." Rhoda claims to be not as upbeat as her mother, but do you think that in some ways, she is? Given the seriousness of some of the issues explored in the memoir, did the humorous voice surprise you?
11. Rhoda freely discusses the problems in her marriage, and how poorly her husband sometimes treated her. Looking back on it, however, she thinks that she probably still would have married him regardless. She asks, "Is it ever really a waste of time to love someone, truly and deeply, with everything you have?" What do you think?
12. Does the memoir signal Rhoda's forgiveness of Nick? Or does the writing of it suggest that in some ways she is still hanging on to her hurt? Forgiveness isn't often explicitly taught. Some religious institutions fall short in this area, stressing that we should forgive rather than telling us how to forgive. How did you learn to forgive? How can we teach forgiveness to our children?
13. Rhoda and Hannah make a list of men they would refuse to date ‚Äî it includes, but is not limited to: men named Dwayne or Bruce; men who have the high strange laugh of a distant loon; men who bring index cards with prewritten conversation starters on a first date. What qualities might you assiduously avoid in a romantic partner?
14. Rhoda's mother tells her, "When you're young, faith is often a matter of rules...but as you get older, you realize that faith is really a matter of relationship — with God, with the people around you, with members of your community." Is Rhoda's own relationship with faith an example of this, in a way?
15. Toward the end of the book, Rhoda remarks that she "suddenly felt destiny as a mighty and perplexing force, an inexorable current that sweeps us off into new channels." Do you believe in destiny? Can you really ever escape your roots or change your beliefs?
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