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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home) by Rhoda Janzen

Every time I review a non-fiction book on this blog, I always say non-fiction isn't normally my book of choice, but every once in a while I find one that I actually finish reading as opposed to jettisoning after only two chapters.  This is the first memoir that I've read.  I started this book and after two chapters I was undecided as to whether or not to continue reading.  In the meantime I read another chapter and just like that a switch flipped and I was in it for the rest of the book.

As someone from Pennsylvania Dutch country and who is 100% Pennsylvania German, I assumed the Mennonite of the title was of this history, heritage, and extraction.  Our own Mennonites (and Amish as well others of German heritage) immigrated to PA from Germany in the eighteenth century.  As someone who has been researching family history for many years, I've read a little bit about this early German immigration.  There were several waves of German immigrants to the New World starting as early as the seventeenth century (something I was surprised to learn recently) and continuing into the eighteenth century (when my ancestors immigrated) and beyond.

There were several options for these seventeenth and eighteenth century Germans fleeing the war-torn area we now know as Germany; one of these options was to migrate to America; another option was to migrate to Russia.   Janzen's Mennonites took the latter option.  After living the Ukraine for several generations, her grandparents immigrated to Canada.  Finally her parents settled in California where they raised Janzen and her siblings in a large Mennonite community.  Who knew there was a large Mennonite community in California?  I didn't until I read Janzen's memoir.

Janzen has left her Mennonite faith and culture far behind in both years, geography, and lifestyle.  However, through the course of some life changing events that lead her to return home for an extended visit for the first time in years, she comes to realize that her Mennonite upbringing had a much more profound and far reaching influence on the paths she chose in life.  After Janzen's husband leaves her for Bob from, she suffers serious injuries in a devastating car wreck.  She returns home to her parents in California to recuperate physically and emotionally.  Throughout her memoir Janzen recounts memories from her Mennonite childhood, experiences throughout her tumultuous marriage, details of her husband's demons and their effects on their relationship and her life, and experiences and conversations that take place throughout her visit home.

This memoir is by turns insightful, introspective and hilarious.  The difference in tone between the mocking irreverence used when discussing various Mennonite customs and relatives and the insightful discussion and analysis of her life choices is pronounced enough to make one wonder if there are two different books in this memoir. I felt as if the later discussion and portrayal of her marriage--revealed to be controlling and abusive--came a little out of left field after the caring and sensitive characterization of her husband and how he cared for her after surgery.  I appreciated most the discussion of her family history and how her family came to North America because of my own genealogical hobby.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


Michelle said…
I liked this book, but I found it a bit jarring too. Some of her rants about life with her Mennonite family were funny, but I felt badly for her family at the same time. What did they think when they read this book? I also have trouble with nonfiction, but this kept my attention til the end.

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