A Feature Review of
Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World
Reviewed by Meghan Florian
I have a thing or two in common with Shirley Showalter. For many years she worked for The Fetzer Institute, based in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. As she notes in the acknowledgements of her new book, she became interested in memoir through the Kalamazoo Gazette’s Community Literary Awards, which I entered myself years ago, albeit as a young student. We are both writers, and we are both Mennonites. The similarities start to fall away there, however, because as Showalter’s memoir shows in simple, clean prose, there are many kinds of Mennonites. The plain folks of Lititz, Pennsylvania, where Showalter grew up, are a bit different from those of North Carolina’s piedmont, where I first came to know and love this strand of the Christian tradition.
Set in Lancaster County, PA, an area known for both its Mennonite and Amish communities, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World is a welcome addition to the collection of so-called “Mennonite memoirs” available today. Showalter writes from the far side of a career that has included not only being the first one in her family to attend college, but subsequently earning a PhD, pursuing a successful career as a college professor, and eventually being named the fourteenth president of Goshen College. In Blush she shares stories of the warm, loving childhood that preceded all of that, on a farm and in a community that echoes popular mental images of Mennonites. As a first person account of a world outsiders often know little about, Blush is an invitation to understand the beauty and grace, if also the struggles, of such a life. Showalter moves us beyond caricatures to communities.
Chapter Eight of the memoir opens with a few lines from another Mennonite writer, Julia Kasdorf, who writes:
“To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.”
With these lines Showalter opens up about her family’s life in the wake of her sister’s death as an infant. The women of their community swoop in, cleaning house and feeding hungry mouths, meeting tangible needs in the face of inconceivable pain. For Showalter, this is an inroad to a broader discussion of Mennonites and food, and truly one of the shining points of the memoir — one which, is my experience, spans Mennonite tradition, past to present, from rural PA and well beyond. Her descriptions (not to mention the recipes in the back of the book!) of large meals around homey tables show that, for people known as simple, Mennonites still know a thing or two about excess — in the best possible ways. In Blush food brings families and communities together, but it is also where one sees radical hospitality displayed, as full larders are always ready to feed an unexpected guest, to fill the stomach of an unknown stranger who shows up at the door.
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