Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Allen & Unwin, $36.99

Rhoda Janzen's memoir begins as life deals her a spectacular double-whammy. Photo / Supplied
Rhoda Janzen's memoir begins as life deals her a spectacular double-whammy. Photo / Supplied

This best-selling memoir has been compared to Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, which I think is doing it a disservice. For Janzen isn't nearly so tears-in-the-eyes funny as Burroughs, but nor is she so merciless or self-obsessed.

Janzen is a US academic, and her memoir begins as life deals her a double-whammy when her husband leaves her for a man he's met online and a drunk driver smashes head-on into her car. Injured physically and emotionally, she retreats to the family she's spent a lifetime rebelling against.

Janzen's parents are devout Mennonites, part of a tight-knit, uber-traditional Christian community which forswears frivolous stuff like dancing and drinking - sort of like the Amish but without the horse-drawn carts and the separation from the rest of society.

Going home is a total immersion into a life Janzen rejected as a young woman and a community that, despite this, welcomes her back with open arms.

A quirky and mischievous writer, Janzen has a well-developed sense of fun that she gives free rein to when it comes to describing the characters in her family. There's her terrifyingly candid and nosy sister-in-law, her imperious Mennonite minister father and, best of all, her relentlessly and hilariously positive mother, who can even see the upside of having to wear underwear made from flour sacks as a child - the pretty floral print, apparently.

Janzen is especially amusing in the section where she lists Mennonite foods of shame - the things she was embarrassed to carry in childhood lunchboxes, like damp persimmon cookies, potato salad in margarine containers, meatballs made with saltine crackers and something called Hollapse, which involves cabbage being boiled, browned and baked. Ironically, since the book first appeared in the US, Janzen has been pestered for recipes for these very shameful foods and, in this edition, some are included in a section at the back.

And that's really the overall theme of this memoir. It's a journey of discovery into the past, with Janzen reconnecting with the values she rejected and finding the worth that's been in them all along. Although she's most often light-hearted, her writing is honest and profound - whether she's describing a marriage that was clearly ill-fated from the start or examining the notion of faith and what it really means.

Unlike Running With Scissors (which I adored, by the way), this is a memoir written with love.

- NZ Herald

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