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.
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.