My first thought upon randomly picking up this book in a bookstore was that the title is a (presumably deliberate) echo of Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and that you shouldn’t invite comparisons to a writer as gifted as Gilman unless you are prepared to throw down in the humour department. Fortunately, Rhoda Janzen is well able to hold her own in that league. In the vast and ever-growing genre of funny, self-deprecating, slightly neurotic women’s memoirs (which is definitely my favourite nonfiction genre to read), Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is definitely a contender.
Mennonite is Janzen’s reflection on growing up Mennonite, leaving that community, then returning to her family and faith community to recover from the double whammies of a car accident, and the messy end of a messy marriage. Janzen’s observations about life in a conservative religious community are spot-on and will be easy for many readers from similar backgrounds to relate to. I could relate because although the specific ways in which Adventists and Mennonites are different from “the world” also differ from each other, that same sense of being “in the world but not of the world” permeates both communities — for better and for worse.
Janzen gives her reader a strong sense of both the better and the worse of her Mennonite background, from the perspective of a child growing up in that world and also from the perspective of an adult who views it with one foot in and one foot outside. Her observations are always witty and often poignant.
Janzen writes a lot about her own family — not only her ex-husband but her parents and siblings too. Some of her revelations made me cringe a little — a problem I often have with painfully honest memoirs — wondering, “Is her family still speaking to her since she published this?” But most are refreshingly open while still being respectful. Janzen’s mother comes across as the strongest and most likable character in her story, with her inappropriate need to discuss intimate bodily functions in any and all settings, and her cheerfully undogmatic and accepting faith.
The one weakness in this memoir was that I didn’t feel a strong sense of story carrying me through from beginning to end — it’s a great collection of individual pieces, but I didn’t have a clear feeling that the memoir was carrying us through Janzen’s story and connecting events to one another as much as I’d expected from reading the cover blurb. However, that may be more about my expectations than about the book itself. It is a funny and often thought-provoking book, and I recommend it to lovers of memoir.