Wednesday, September 29, 2010

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

October's selection for the Flower Library Book club is a memoir by Rhoda Janzen. Raised in a Mennonite family in California, she has distanced herself from many of the tenets of her religion and the church, but she does still embrace the spirituality of the life. Her father was the former head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the U.S. and her mother the glue that kept the family together as she and her sister and two brothers were growing up.

Janzen's return home to the safety of her parents' home is precipitated by a series of unfortunate events: a hysterectomy that went bad, the dissolution of her marriage when her bipolar husband finds true love with a man named Bob from, and the inability to continue to pay the mortgage on her new lake front home. Add to this a horrendous car accident that leaves her with many broken bones.

The book is really a series of essays that retrace many of the events of her childhood, her career, and the relationship with her husband. The reader is treated to family situations that are humorous and poignant. The recounting of the family camping trip in a van was especially funny as she and her sister tried to escape the wrath of killer mosquitoes. A discussion of typical Mennonite food ensues after Janzen describes the lunches and thermoses that the kids take to school. Cabbage and borscht are stables as is the "Cotletten-and-Ketchup Sandwich."

As Janzen details the relationship with her husband, it is a completely different feeling. Their relationship was on again, off again and quite stormy. She endured the verbal abuse and temper outbursts due to the bipolar disease. She watches him spend money that they don't have and suffers the indignity of losing him to "Bob the guy from" These passages are cathartic and are some of the most powerful in the book. It's one thing to lose your husband to another woman, but to find that he is more interested in men is devastating. The fact that she finds some happy times with a man who is seventeen years younger than she is just rewards.

I enjoyed this book, but at times felt disconnected from it. I am glad that Janzen included the history of the Mennonites, but I wanted more. The vignettes and parade of characters seemed perfunctory and formulaic. And where was the black dress?

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