|A Brief Review of
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
It’s not every week that we review a title that tops a New York Times bestseller list. But then again, it’s not every week that a book on Mennonite culture tops the bestseller list; in fact, this might be the first ever. Honestly, I didn’t pick up Rhoda Janzen’s delightful memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress with the intention of reviewing it. Our family was on a weekend away, and I wanted for once just to read a book for fun, so I stole this one from my wife’s stack. And fun it was — side-splittingly hilarious at times — so much so that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell others about it. Mennonite… tells the story of Janzen’s settling back into the life of the Mennonite community in which she grew up and had previously left behind, after her husband leaves her for a man he met on a certain gay website. Janzen is a gifted storyteller, spinning her own tale in a frank and humorous manner. This is not a quaint or idealized account of Mennonite life. Indeed, Janzen’s work may come across to some as coarse — for instance, launching into the book with a comical take on polio, shriveled arms and breasts — but it has a sort of ring of truth to it: crappy things happen in life and we struggle to come to grips with these realities, whether by force of sheer willpower or by jest… or both. Ultimately, Janzen’s story is about belonging to a people, and about the beauty of a community in which no matter how fast you have run away from it, is ready to embrace you when in all your complexity when you come stumbling home. Isn’t this the sort of loving community that we all long for in our deepest desires? And Janzen, in telling her story here, returns the graciousness that has been extended to her, describing her Mennonite community with deep affection, yet being willing to speak frankly of its flaws. On one level this is a frolicking, conversational memoir that has the feel of sitting around a dinner table listening to Janzen spin the tale of her experiences, and yet there is a deep undercurrent here of our vulnerability as humans and our longings to be part of a family and a community that is bigger than ourselves. For whatever reason you would pick it up, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. is a rich and rewarding read, one that you will not want to miss!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com