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Cannonball Read III: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

By Nosio | Books | March 28, 2011 |

By Nosio | Books | March 28, 2011 |

Normally, I stay far, far away from titles like this. Chick lit is, for the most part, a shallow and misleading genre, reflecting a culture of women that I can barely relate to in any way, shape, or form. Well, I suppose I can relate to them shape-wise, but having a uterus might be all that I have in common with Sophie Kinsella devotees. It’s not that I’m particularly high-brow, but I have a difficult time getting through a book when its entire premise is based around (a) fashion, (b) getting a man, (c) shopping conundrums!, (d) a vague rip off of a “Sex and the City” storyline. Those things are boring.

However, I had a few hours to kill in an airport a while back so I wandered into a Barbara’s Bookstore. Over the past four years I have probably poured hundreds of dollars into airport bookstores. I instituted a tradition sometime during my freshman year of college to beat travel boredom: I allowed myself to buy two books per visit home - one for the departing flight, and one for the way back. Feeling nostalgic and a bit down after a visit to see friends from school (they’re all still in New York, I moved back to Chicago), I decided to indulge in my expensive old habit one more time. Thanks to having read nearly half the bookstore’s offerings on previous trips, I warily purchased a copy of Rhoda Janzen’s memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. The subtitle seemed fitting.

The book starts with three events that jar Janzen from her somewhat normal life as a college professor and writer: Her husband announces he’s leaving her for a man he met on, she is severely injured in a head-on car crash with a drunk driver, and she learns that she will be unable to afford to keep the house she and her husband recently bought together. Taking a sabbatical, she retreats to her parents’ home and finds refuge in the Mennonite community she left behind as a young adult. The story is nothing more than Janzen recounting parts of her childhood and the process of trying to move forward after the dissolution of her marriage and the car accident. That doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it’s written with a wry sense of humor and an authentic fondness for the community she was raised by, and it makes for a compelling read.

MIALBD was unlike anything I expected. It was smart, poignant, and truly funny. The very real characters - Rhoda’s close family and friends - are often hilarious, and utterly indelible. If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I AM. I didn’t think I could be so charmed by a book that mentions clothing in its title, but the further I read, the less annoyed I became with what I once deemed trite and contrived. As the only member of her family to have cast aside her Mennonite faith, Rhoda is described by her relatives as being “the vainglorious one” - a sin tantamount to blasphemy. As the story progresses and Janzen reveals more about her family, faith, and the objections that prompted her to renounce her religion, it becomes apparent that this project was just as much about reconciling her life’s choices with her upbringing as it was about her emotional and physical health. In the end, Janzen’s story isn’t about what the title led me to assume (a woman choosing between a materialistic, consumer-driven lifestyle fueled by sex and glamor versus one that involves churning butter and sewing quilts). Contrary to my initial beliefs, it’s a story about a person reclaiming her connection to her roots without sacrificing the identity she has chosen to define herself, and that is something I found decidedly relatable and interesting.

For more of Nosio’s reviews, check out her blog, it was nothing, really.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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