Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

by Jessica Baldanzi

Jessica Baldanzi reviews Janzen’s forthcoming memoir, which depicts with “wit and spirit” Janzen’s recovery from a traumatic divorce and her adult return, for an extended visit, to the close-knit, conformist Mennonite home and community in which she grew up.

Comments for Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

  • Ann Hostetler

    On September 17, 2009 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    So what ethnic group claims the smoked Herring "lunch of shame?"

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  • Ervin Beck

    On September 24, 2009 Ervin Beck wrote:

    Jessica, I will guess that nowadays smoked herring is an occasional treat for you. Students of folk foods observe that, as ethnics become acculturated, the everyday foods of their ethnic pasts become special foods brought out mainly for festive occasions. (See shoofly pies, once everyday breakfast food, now made by Pennsylvania Germans only for family reunions, etc.) And ethnic identity among otherwise acculturated people last longest in food preferences. I love smoked herring. Enjoy!

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  • Ann Hostetler

    On October 26, 2009 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    A "memoir" is the perspective of one person, and doesn't claim to be objective, as such. We all know how each one of us has a different version of the same family story--just ask family members to describe the same event in the past. Even autobiographies that purport to tell the "truth" are always suspect in regards to objectivity. Would it be better that we not write memoirs at all? Or do we take them too seriously? Is a memoir more about the truth, or about one perspective on experience?

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  • Jan Voth Sorensen

    On November 9, 2009 Jan Voth Sorensen wrote:

    You don't need to buy the is undoubtedly floating around your circle of acquaintances so borrow it. Else, you will be missing some critical questions and some very funny insights.

    I hail from Holdeman Mennonites and found that Janzen didn't even begin to tell the down and dirty side of conservative-ism. I should have been so fortunate to wear jeans even in the barn...

    This memoir is Janzen's view of how it was to be Mennonite in HER world. Maybe those feeling a rub by this book need to look a bit more at their own denials.

    I would totally love to have Rhoda Janzen as a close friend...Borscht and all!! Especially if she can do Pluma Moos without curdle.

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  • Elsie K Neufeld

    On November 13, 2009 Elsie K Neufeld wrote:

    I concur with Ann Hostetler's comments that memoirs are one perspective of a bigger story. I doubt any memoir has been published that does not result in some disgruntled relative or friend of the author. Those who are unhappy with how they were presented have the option to write their own memoir to set the record straight.

    I read Janzen's book this week and loved every word of it. My first impression, after only several pages, was "Rhoda Janzen is an American Miriam Toews!" I laughed aloud, was astonished at how much of the book resonated, and, in the end, sent Janzen a telepathic warm hug. This book is without guile or bitterness.

    This is a book about what it means to inhabit one's humanity, including the gritty and glorious details along the way. This memoir is a huge YES! to life; it's the voice of a burning soul in search of her initial moorings; it is wrought with terror and beauty; it keeps one eye on reality, and the other on the Mystery that holds it all together.

    I will not be letting this book out of my sight for a long time; I will be buying more copies to give to friends -- Mennonite and not -- for Christmas. Thank you, Rhoda Janzen. I can't wait to read your next book!

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  • Dora Dueck

    On November 15, 2009 Dora Dueck wrote:

    I've enjoyed reading the review above and also the discussion of Janzen's book. I confess I haven't read it -- I guess I was put off it by the only other review of it I've seen, in Christian Century. It was reviewed there by Valerie Weaver-Zercher, whose writing and views I admire; she reviewed the book in conjunction with Robert Rhodes' Nightwatch (a book I have read). She compared the prose of the two as "like those red cinnamon candies" (Janzen) versus "a slice of whole grain bread" (Rhodes) and said further that Janzen "manages to reveal little of consequence about either herself or the church from which she came" and further, "her wit at times obscures authentic self-revelation." Altogether, then, it didn't sound so appealing. Weaver-Zercher admits that as a Mennonite who's "never left," which is where I suppose I fit myself (though "leaving" and "not leaving" may be categories that have more overlap than we sometimes acknowledge) her reading of the book may be "too reflexively defensive." -- At any rate, with those comments and now others of a different perspective on Janzen's book juxtaposed, maybe I should after all, read it. See for myself. Thanks all!

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  • Ann Hostetler

    On November 16, 2009 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    Thanks, Dora, for summarizing Valerie Weaver-Zercher's review for the Christian Century, and for sharing that perspective with our readers as well. It's insightful that Weaver-Zercher acknowledged her own Mennonite vantage point in the review. I appreciate your parenthetical comment that "leaving" and "not leaving" may be categories that have more overlap than we sometimes acknowledge. It seems that memoir is one good place to explore the overlap.

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  • Valerie Gale

    On November 19, 2009 Valerie Gale wrote:

    I finished Janzen's book this week and I think it probably reads better if you don't have a Mennonite context. For someone as educated as she is, she has a surprisingly provincial view of the Mennonite world that is bound to annoy Mennonites. And, she commits one of my pet peeves which is to characterize widely shared experiences as uniquely Mennonite. Janzen is a gifted poet and must have a great deal of personal wit and charm though I imagine her family members are having trouble seeing that right now, especially as her tendency to mock anyone or anything less sophisticated than she is (or thinks she is) often seems mean-spirited.

    That said, the book is best when she delves into her marriage and the choices she made there. Why is it that smart women end up marrying and staying with abusive men? An honest and witty account of her journey into academia, her marriage and its dissolution, would have made for a far better book. That's the culture clash I would have enjoyed exploring with Janzen.

    Would I recommend this book? Not often. Got tired of "Bob," her excessive use of "gal" to refer to grown women, and her tendency to use the past tense when describing people who are still living. (Now who is being petty?)

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  • shirley h. showalter

    On November 21, 2009 shirley h. showalter wrote:

    Fascinating conversation! I love the humor and the life-affirming spirit in this book also. I had to work hard to name my reservations because of the self-examination it took me as another woman and another Mennonite. I hope I have done so with both helpful candor and charity in this blog post:

    Hope to see more conversation here.

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  • Jessica Baldanzi

    On November 27, 2009 Jessica Baldanzi wrote:

    The creamed smoked herring was from the Swedish side of my family, although the Italian side also had a similar staple of "baccala," salt cod.

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  • Jessica Baldanzi

    On November 27, 2009 Jessica Baldanzi wrote:

    Apologies for the late commenting above on Ann's question of a few months ago.

    It's exciting to come back to this page after a while and see that so much discussion has developed! I have to reiterate that I found Janzen's voice witty and incisive, but still impressively gentle and humble--to me, anything but "mean-spirited." Maybe it's easier for to me to see it that way, however, since I married a Mennonite, but don't feel her commentary to be any direct statement about my own identity. (Hmmmm, _I Married a Mennonite_. Perhaps I should get started on a memoir of my own? :) )

    In answer to Cynthia and Ann's earlier thread, from what I know of memoirs these days, James Frey's controversy has prompted publishers to be much more aware of potential problems with excessive blurring of "truth" and fiction in books classified as memoir--but, of course, they do still want to sell books.

    That said, it's generally accepted that, as Ann suggested, no memoir can represent any absolute truth. The only thing I would add to Ann's statement is to remember that sometimes memoir writers _have_ to change names and events to protect friends and family members: they might blur two characters together, or change a few details to make a real person, who doesn't feel comfortable being a character in the memoir, less recognizable to readers.

    It has also become commonplace for the legal departments of major publishers to review memoir manuscripts and ask authors to obscure or "adjust" certain characters to protect the publisher from potential legal disputes.

    So from what I understand, although any memoir should be taken with a grain of salt, an author's reasons for fictionalizing parts of a memoir aren't always dishonest, or just for the sake of making the story more entertaining or lucrative.

    Thanks for the great discussion, all!

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  • sports picks

    On November 28, 2009 sports picks wrote:

    Nice review!

    I have bookmarked your site to return for other posts from you.

    Thanks, James The Sports Picks Guy

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  • Loretta Willems

    On November 30, 2009 Loretta Willems wrote:

    What a great discussion! After reading all the comments here as well as Shirley Hershey Showalter's very thoughtful review in her blog, "100 Memoirs," I've decided to read "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress." That is a reversal of my earlier NO after reading Valery Weaver-Zercher's review in the Christian Century. I still have reservations about the book--shall likely find it highly irritating at least in places, but will give it a chance.

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  • Ann Hostetler

    On November 30, 2009 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    One of the subtle and more interesting issues that Rhoda Janzen's memoir raises for me, is the extent to which she, a brilliant woman domesticated by a strict Mennonite upbringing, was able to accommodate for so long behavior on the part of her ex-husband that some might find domineering and controlling, if not downright abusive. Kate Christensen hints at this underlying issue in her NYTBR review, and I think it would make for a really interesting discussion in a book club. Is there any connection between being raised Mennonite and putting up with such difficulties? And what produces such admirable cheerfulness in the face of things that most people would gnash their teeth at? How long do we "turn the other cheek" before recognizing that a relationship may be beyond repair? I hope that the lively discussions of "representing" Mennonites in this book (Janzen comes from the Mennonite Brethren, a denomination that is not affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA) do not eclipse this important topic, which Janzen handles with unusual candor and dignity. I admire this part of her book very much.

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  • Joanne Lehman

    On December 5, 2009 Joanne Lehman wrote:

    I agree. This may be the most significant and profound message I took away from the book. There was one place where she talked about an incident that she experienced in grade school and then she said something like: "I had no language for challenging authority..." (paraphrase) My sisters and I often talk about the way we were raised (1950s) to be compliant. The important thing was to be a "good girl" and to make a good impression no matter what. This is a bit different than what you mentioned above, Ann, but seems like another facet of the issue you bring up.

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  • Mary Ann Zehr

    On December 20, 2009 Mary Ann Zehr wrote:

    I think the book was worth reading because of some of its insights, such as how she says "show me a Mennonite woman, and I'll show you someone who isn't assertive." I was raised Mennonite and I've been struggling all my life to be assertive in personal relationships. Sure, I'm assertive professionally, but on a personal level it's really hard for me to pay attention to my own needs. It's interesting that Rhoda, who was assertive enough not to seemingly use a filter for what she said about people in her memoir, put up with an abusive husband.

    Parts of the book were really funny, and she's dead on in some of her critique, such as how children of some frugal Mennonites (or Mennonite Brethren) go hogwild on materialism, buying fancy pools and stuff.

    But she is over the top in her descriptions of folks, outrageous really, and because of that she ends up coming across as rather screwed up and the people she is poking fun at (and yes, mocking at times) come across as sane and likeable.

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  • Cynthia Yoder

    On January 19, 2010 Cynthia Yoder wrote:

    Enjoying reading all of the commentary here. I just wanted to make a comment about memoir & fiction. When I was writing my memoir (Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life), I was studying memoir at Sarah Lawrence and learning of authors who alienated their families with their writing. Then the author, Dave Eggers, came to speak, and he said that for "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," he decided to pass his book around to his family members, while he was still writing it. He said whole new passages were written, based on conversations he later had with his siblings. You can't write by committee, but you can ask yourself for the deepest honesty, which having those conversations would challenge a writer to do. Eggers' talk inspired me to give a draft of my book to my parents before I published it, despite my fear that they would criticize it. It resulted in rich conversations, expanded writing, and corrections of some facts that I had gotten wrong. There is a way in which memoir has become "tainted" by authors making up memories and calling them actual. The reality-fiction lines are blurring, just like they are in reality TV. While this may be unfortunate, truth be told, even good old-fashioned "real" memories themselves are questionable! (Omar Eby wrote a memoir about this recently). What you can't make up is emotional truth. When I read memoir, this is the kernel I look for and leave the rest up to speculation!

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  • Ann Hostetler

    On January 22, 2010 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    What a daring idea, Cynthia, to pass the manuscript around to selected persons involved in the narrative, and to be rewarded with whole new conversations, memories, and threads to weave into the narrative.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that you can't make up emotional truth, and that it's the core of memoir.

    Cynthia's memoir, Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life, is available from Cascadia Publishing House at

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  • Dora Dueck

    On January 27, 2010 Dora Dueck wrote:

    Like Cynthia, I've enjoyed reading the commentary on Rhoda Janzen's book and on memoir more generally. I did get the book, as I earlier suggested I should, and have posted my response at Saying the same as many, but diverging in bits as well. Which reminds me again how individual our reading experiences can be.

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  • Gayle

    On March 9, 2010 Gayle wrote:

    Gah. Don't bother. It's not funny and it's way too self-absorbed. I know, I know, it's a memoir, it's supposed to be self-absorbed, but it has the tone of a teenager who just knows that she's cool and her family isn't so it's okay to make fun of them. It's not that well-written, really just a series of anecdotes strung together, and what thin charm it has is gone by Chapter 3. I had high hopes and was very disappointed. As an earlier commenter mentioned, the narrative was just irritating and not funny.

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  • Ann Hostetler

    On March 19, 2010 Ann Hostetler wrote:

    Seven rules of comedy in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

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  • Helma Voth

    On May 10, 2010 Helma Voth wrote:

    Rhoda Janzen looks at her life as honestly as she can. What she sees as “fact” for her is emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually significant. What someone else sees as “fact” is related to their upbringing, their education, their personal needs, and their belief system. Emotions are part of being human. They do not need to be surgically removed or corrected by others. I have read the stories of two of my uncles, and it may be true that they have omitted some historical facts and glossed over events that their sisters or parents might have seen as important, but their story is their story, not someone else’s story.

    Rhoda Janzen mocks, laughs, asks serious questions, expresses love, frequently reminds us that her husband left her for a male boyfriend, and she even talks about some traditional Mennonite foods from her background. I followed her less-than-perfect wandering thread of experiences. That is what we often do when we revisit where we came from, what we believed, and what we can do now: we wander from past to present to past, back and forth.

    Some of what she described I certainly understood and could relate to. Some experiences and views I recognized as unique (after all I grew up in Canada, and she grew up in the USA!). Certainly she left out some “facts”, but that just allowed me to ponder my own journey. I must say her mother sounds very different from my mother - - and they were both Mennonites! When I read about her embarrassments in school at being so different than the other children, I definitely understood that feeling - - and I was in a school that was 99.9% Mennonites! I am certain that other people from minority backgrounds, or even unusual home backgrounds would understand that feeling too.

    I certainly don’t think it is realistic to expect to learn about “Mennonites” by reading one memoir. After all, a memoir is the story of one individual. I suppose if I would suggest one thing, it would be that Rhoda’s statements concerning what a Mennonite is (or believes) should be prefaced by “in my experience a Mennonite is or believes”. After all, every Mennonite home is influenced by specific personalities, by the particular family history, by the country they live in or lived in, by communication patterns, by educational exposures, and yes, by the “flavour of Mennonite Belief System” adhered to.

    James Hollis states in one of his books that “Life is an experiment . . . not a problem to be solved”, and I suspect this experiment continues day after day, even though we sometimes want a break, a rest!

    For years I felt so alone, as I questioned, as I cried, and as I stumbled through trying to make sense of life. It is comforting to read a memoir like this, and it is helpful to know that others work through issues one step at a time. I am glad I read this book. Do I still have questions and struggles, and issues? Yes. My life continues to be “an experiment”.

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  • Kelly

    On May 12, 2010 Kelly wrote:

    To be honest, I have never heard of her up until recently. She came to my college to teach a class and just yesterday did a poetry reading for us. She told us a lot about her personal life, and she actually has really supportive parents. She has great wit and a good presence when reading her poetry. It isn't all about her Mennonite background, although she admits she is a spiritual person and refers to God rather often. She is very respectful of the Mennonite and explained to us that this was just her view of things at the time that she wrote them.

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