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Review: Rhoda Janzen returns to roots in 'Mennonite in a Little Black Dress'

Whoever said you can't go home again probably never met a Mennonite.

Rhoda Janzen grew up in that hardworking, dance-forbidding, peace-and-Jesus-loving community — and, as an adult, left it behind for academia and an atheist husband.

But then a botched hysterectomy left her urinating into a bag. Her husband of 15 years left for a man he met online. The same week, a teenager slammed head-on into her Volkswagen Beetle, leaving her body as broken as her spirit.

"I went home to the Mennonites," she writes in this spirited, fascinating memoir about rediscovering belief and coming to terms with an upbringing that seemed full of humiliations. No radio, no unsupervised TV, no worldly toys. If the lunch pail, modest skirt and braids in school weren't bad enough, there were also the contents of that pail to overcome: borscht, for example.

But why not go back? Her parents — father Si, retired from his position as "the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf, " and mother Mary, "as buoyant as a lark on a summer's morn" — are as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold day.

Mennonites, Janzen explains, are not Amish. They drive cars and use technology, though her father does not believe in cell phones. They dedicate their lives to hard work, pacifism, a lack of vanity and cooking, especially with cabbage.

Janzen writes of an extraordinary life that began with outhouses and modest clothes and found a place among higher education and Prada bags. She is a poet and professor with a Ph.D., and her writing is occasionally more intellectual than conversational. But she also offers moments of poetic beauty. And despite her wounded emotional state, Janzen hasn't lost her sense of humor.

How maddening unbreakable bonds can seem. How impossible to shake our upbringing. But Janzen's story reminds us what a beautiful gift our past can be.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

By Rhoda


Holt, 256

pages, $22

Review: Rhoda Janzen returns to roots in 'Mennonite in a Little Black Dress' 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 3:30am]
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