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Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Posted in review by Adair Jones on February 14, 2011

Daughter to a famous theologian and an irrepressibly matter-of-fact mother, Rhoda Janzen grew up in a strict Mennonite family.  She wore tight plaits, shapeless ankle length skirts, and took a thermos of strong-smelling Borscht to school each day.  She couldn’t dance and was permitted to sing only hymns.  Since the Mennonites frown on higher education for women, it was expected that Janzen would marry, settle down, and produce obedient Mennonite children.

As soon as she is able, Janzen flees.  She studies English literature instead of theology, gains a PhD, becomes a professor, publishes poetry.  And she marries the opposite of a Mennonite man—the stylish, worldly, vainglorious Nick. Janzen’s life then becomes one of elegant understatement, full of art openings, cocktail parties, interesting conversations, and little black dresses.

One day, Nick leaves her for a man he meets on Gay.com.  In the same week, she is in an awful automobile accident.  Alone, in shock, unable to work or manage the mortgage on their new lake house on her own, Janzen hits rock bottom. Her family urges her to come home, and home she goes.

What happens surprises her.  She is heartily welcomed.  She is accepted and loved. Without a husband, Janzen unconsciously drifts back to the point of origin, finding comfort in the sense of community and strong ethics of the Mennonites, even while she pokes fun at their old-fashioned quirks.

Her descriptions of growing up Mennonite and how this upbringing collides with the world Nick offers are at once hilarious and tender.  Janzen’s intelligence shines brightly through all the comedy. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a heart-warming story of self-revelation, transformation and, finally, self-acceptance.

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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, Rhoda Janzen published by Allen & Unwin.

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in February 2011.

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3 Responses

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  1. fiona stager said, on February 14, 2011 at 1:54 am

    I too enjoyed this memoir. I think one of the stars is Rhoda’s mother who deserves a book of her own. I just went back and re-read the hilarious conversation they have about whether Rhoda should follow her mother’s suggestion and marry her first cousin, Waldermar, a professor who drives a tractor vs. the relaxed pothead Rhoda has already dated.
    What did surprise me is that Rhoda, even while disclosing rather intimate details of her marriage with Nick still had no real insight into how terribly terrilby toxic her relationship with him had been. I wanted to give Rhoda a little shake, a sign that I was so engrossed in this memoir, I felt she was a friend.
    I think it would be a good bookclub book as well. Lots to discuss!

    • adairjones said, on February 14, 2011 at 2:02 am

      Yes! Rhoda’s mother is delightful. I laughed at so many of her observations. And I agree with you about the marriage. The detail that they had been divorced at one point and then foolishly remarried is buried in all the comedy…

  2. […] to reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights.  Then, there’s Perfection by Julie Metz and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which are all similar […]


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