31 reviews

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
by Rhoda Janzen

Published: 2010-04-13
Paperback : 272 pages
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70 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 14 of 31 members

"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 ...

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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 Review

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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.

_____ Yes, I think "Stinky" is a cute name for a withered arm!

_____ No, I’d prefer to name my withered arm something with a little more dignity, such as Reynaldo.

Although breast cancer also runs in my family, it hasn’t played a significant role. It comes to us late in life, shriveling a tit or two, and then often subsiding under the composite resistance of chemo and buttermilk. That is, it would shrivel our tits if we had tits. Which we don’t.

As adolescents, my sister Hannah and I were naturally anxious to see if we would turn out more like our mother or our father. There was a lot at stake. Having endured a painfully uncool childhood, we realized that our genetic heritage positioned us on a precarious cusp. Dad was handsome but grouchy; Mom was plain but cheerful. Would we be able to pass muster in normal society, or would our Mennonite history forever doom us to outsider status?

My father, once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, is the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. In the complex moral universe that is Mennonite adulthood, a Mennonite can be good-looking and still have no sartorial taste whatsoever. My father may actually be unaware that he is good-looking. He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount. Would God be pleased if we spent an unnecessary thirty-one cents at McDonald’s? I think not.

At six foot five and classically handsome, Dad has an imposing stature that codes charismatic elocution and a sobering, insightful air of authority. I’ve considered the possibility that his wisdom and general seriousness make him seem handsomer than he actually is, but whatever the reason, Dad is one of those people to whom everybody listens. No matter who you are, you do not snooze through this man’s sermons. Even if you are an atheist, you find yourself nodding and thinking, Preach it, mister!

Well, not nodding. Maybe you imagine you’re nodding. But in this scenario you are in a Mennonite church, which means you sit very still and worship Jesus with all your heart, mind, and soul, only as if a snake had bitten you, and you are now in the last stages of paralysis.

I may be the first person to mention my father’s good looks in print. Good looks are considered a superfluous feature in a Mennonite world leader, because Mennonites are all about service. Theoretically, we do not even know what we look like, since a focus on our personal appearance is vainglorious. Our antipathy to vainglory explains the decision of many of us to wear those frumpy skirts and the little doilies on our heads, a decision we must have arrived at only by collectively determining not to notice what we had put on that morning.

My mother, unlike my father, is not classically handsome. But she does enjoy good health. She is as buoyant as a lark on a summer’s morn. Nothing gets this woman down. She is the kind of mother who, when we were growing up, came singing into our bedrooms at 6:00 a.m., tunefully urging us to rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. And this was on Saturday, Saturday. Upbeat she is. Glamorous she is not. Once she bought Hannah a black T-shirt that said in glittery magenta cursive, NASTY!! She didn’t know what it meant. When we told her, she said sunnily, "Oh well, then you can wear it to work in the garden!"

Besides being born Mennonite, which is usually its own beauty strike, my mother has no neck. When we were growing up, our mother’s head, sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce, became something of a family focus. We’d take every opportunity to thrust hats and baseball caps upon her, which made us all shriek with unconscionable laughter. Mom would laugh good-naturedly, but if we got too out of hand, she’d predict that our Loewen genes would eventually assert themselves.

And they did. Although I personally have and appreciate a neck, I was, by my early forties, the very picture of blooming Loewen health: peasant-cheeked, impervious to germs, hearty as an ox. I rarely got sick. And the year before the main action of this memoir occurs, I had sustained a physical debilitation—I won’t say illness—so severe that I thought I was statistically safe for years to come.

I was only forty-two at the time, but my doctor advised a radical salpingo-oopherectomy. For the premenopausal set, that translates to "Your uterus has got to go." A hushed seriousness hung in the air when the doctor first broached the subject of the hysterectomy.

I said, "You mean dump my whole uterus? Ovaries and everything?"

"Yes, I’m afraid so."

I considered a moment. I knew I should be feeling a kind of feminist outrage, but it wasn’t happening. "Okay."

Dr. Mayler spoke some solemn words about a support group. From his tone I gathered that I also ought to be feeling a profound sense of loss, and a cosmic unfairness that this was happening to me at age forty-two, instead of at age—what?—fifty-six? I dutifully wrote down the contact information for the support group, thinking that maybe I was in denial again. Maybe the seriousness and the pathos of the salpingo-oopherectomy would register later. By age forty-two I had learned that denial was my special modus operandi. Big life lessons always kicked in tardily for me. I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer, a slow learner. The postman has to ring twice, if you get my drift.

My husband, who got a vasectomy two weeks after we married, was all for the hysterectomy. "Do it," he urged. "Why do you need that thing? You don’t use it, do you?"

In general, Nick’s policy was, if you haven’t used it in a year, throw it out. We lived in homes with spare, ultramodern decor. Once he convinced me to furnish a coach house with nothing but a midcentury dining table and three perfect floor cushions. You know the junk drawer next to the phone? Ours contained a single museum pen and a pad of artisan paper on a Herman Miller tray.

Nick therefore supported the hysterectomy, but only on the grounds of elegant understatement. To him the removal of unnecessary anatomical parts was like donating superfluous crap to Goodwill. Had the previous owners left a beer raft in the garage, as a thoughtful gift to you? No thanks! We weren’t the type of people who would store a beer raft in our garage—not because we opposed beer rafts per se, but because we did not want to clutter an uncompromising vista of empty space. Nick led the charge to edit our belongings, but I willingly followed. Had you secretly been wearing the same bra since 1989? Begone, old friend! Were you clinging to a sentimental old wedding dress? Heave ho! Nick’s enthusiasm for the hysterectomy made me a little nervous. I kept taking my internal temperature, checking for melancholy. The medical literature I was reading told me I should be fe view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From 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 — 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?

Suggested by Members

Do you prefer reading an autobiography or a memoir? Why?
by jordantj (see profile) 06/21/11

This book deals a lot with relationships - family relationships, spousal relationships. How would you define a "good" relationship?
by ltkelly1 (see profile) 05/21/11

actually used some of our own discussion topics and used what our book club friend brought to the table
by Corgi819 (see profile) 03/10/11

Do you feel that the author regrets her upbringing? Is she overly critical of her family and fellow Mennonites?
by jenniferharding (see profile) 02/25/10

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Q&A with Author Rhonda Janzen:

What prompted you to write Mennonite in a Little Black Dress?

I had never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, and I never would have started writing a memoir on my own. When I first returned to the Mennonite community, I started peppering my friends with astonished e-mails about my folks. I was, like, Check this out! My father reuses his toothpicks! My mother is ideologically committed to finishing a super stinky cucumber lotion that she got at a hotel! It was my friend Carla who first told me that I’d better start saving the e-mails. She said they were beginning to smell like a memoir.

Your previous book is a collection of poems, Babel’s Stair, and your poems have also been widely published in journals and anthologies. Was it difficult to make the switch from writing poetry to writing prose?

Fools rush in. I’ve been studying the craft of writing poetry my entire adult life, and my commitment to it has a serious edge that I blessedly don’t feel when I write creative nonfiction. Because of my training, I’m supposed to know what I’m doing in poetry. But I’ve never studied nonfiction in a formal context, so it’s easy to give myself permission to wing it. This is the beauty of ignorance.

What’s up with those head coverings that so many Mennonite women wear?

My question exactly! The Mennonites would tell you that they wear them as a public sign of modesty. Mennonite women have a long tradition of not wanting to tempt men with their worldly beauty, you know. They used to wear ugly little capes like ponchos to hide their “womanly shape.” But I suspect that the head coverings are just cheaper than hair products.

Where are you on your spiritual journey today?

So often we think of faith as the crutch of crisis; we turn to it only when our world bottoms out, as mine did when my husband left me. Weirdly, faith is becoming more important to me, not less. I’m still exploring issues of spirituality and theology, and I’m even regularly attending a church. Also, nobody’s twisting my arm! I’m often amazed that an English professor prefers nonfiction to new fiction….with a nod to Viktor Frankl, the books on my nightstand are all about man’s search for meaning.

You write briefly in your memoir about having chosen to not bear children. Was this a difficult decision?

Nick had a vasectomy the first month we were married. That was a joint decision. Given his misery, we felt that it would be irresponsible to risk passing on bipolarity. I do love children, and I’ve often wondered what kind of a mother I would have made. For us, though, the harder decision was not to adopt, as my brothers have. We chose not to because we couldn’t provide a stable parenting environment.

But I can’t pin my decision solely on Nick’s situation. You know what troubles me? The notion that we should reproduce just because we can. Seems to me we should be able to articulate some proactive, deliberated reasons for bringing a child into the world. When women cite their biological clock, I wonder if they’ve thought that out. Shouldn’t human beings assess their biological urges as well as admit them? What if we’re having babies to feel less lonely, more needed? If so, we’re using someone to make us feel better about ourselves. That’s a little creepy.

Your mother is wonderfully, irrepressibly upbeat. Did her sunny outlook on life shape your terrific sense of humor?

Sure. She cracks me up. She sees the world through an astonishing parental lens. Recently I drove her to a family reunion and she sent along a picture of me that made me look like the love child of Menno Simons and Spiro Agnew—no comment, just, Here, I thought you might like this hideous picture of yourself! Then there was a picture of my sister with a pandowdy face and an underslung chin, like a muffler dragging a bumper. What is it with moms? Have they no sense? I retaliate by taking pictures of her in hats. She has a global head and no neck, and yet she just peacefully stands there and lets me photograph her in any hat whatsoever, including an eighties shoulder pad I removed from her coat.

What memoirs have moved or inspired you? Did they influence the way you wrote your own?

One memoir I read late into the night was Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer, about the Hmong immigration to the United States from Laos. But I never seriously read memoir as a genre until I had written one. I was always too busy with poetry and with cultural criticism circa 1885. Now, though, I love curling up with a good memoir from time to time. Who doesn’t love David Sedaris’s deadpan humor, Jeannette Walls’s submerged self-pity, Elizabeth Gilbert’s discursive questing? Good stuff.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A Fun Read"by MariaHourihane (see profile) 05/28/13

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well written, funny and self deprecating. Added to that I learned about Mennonites which was fascinating.

  "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress"by Lisawasiecko (see profile) 05/10/12

I enjoyed the first 60 pages. The rest not so much.

  "Menonite in a Little Black Dress"by LaceyGoetz (see profile) 05/09/12

The first half was funny but there was no new material for the second half and it dragged on. She uses big words some of which could not be found in Dictionary.com.

  "Mennonite In a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home"by MoniqueHughes (see profile) 03/23/12

Parts of the book were very funny and enjoyable and other parts were a bit slow. The language was a little strong for me throughout the book.

  "Did you forget funny?"by sthammond (see profile) 09/16/11

The first word that comes to mind is funny, but that isn't an option! Learned a lot about the Mennonites and about myself.

  "Lost emphasis"by laxrunners (see profile) 09/16/11

Started out funny, then became mostly informative.

  "time waster"by PSchulz (see profile) 09/13/11

slow read, difficult to maintain interest in book

  "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress"by RachelP (see profile) 08/09/11

Janzen's take on life is inspiring and beautifully positive. To come from such a rigid background and cleave her own set of values is courageous; to come away from an abusive relationship and stay focused... (read more)

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