Mennonite in a Little Black Dress / by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
Rhoda Janzen
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
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Rhoda Janzen’s childhood was no picnic, and her marriage was no walk in the park, but somehow her account of them makes for excellent beach reading. I suppose that’s because she narrates her hardships in the sassy, light-hearted style of banter between friends; even the darkest of events are described with scraps of sarcastic humor.

Although Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is billed as a memoir, its scope is so broad that it veers into the territory of autobiography. Janzen oscillates between the two main phases of her life: first, her old-fashioned Mennonite upbringing and subsequent shift away from faith into a secular academic career. Second, her fifteen-year marriage to an emotionally abusive man named Nick, whose untreated mental illness fueled the flames of a raging temper. These two distinct phases are presented in a scattered, anachronistic series of short episodes that gradually form a patchwork picture of Janzen’s first 43 years of life.

Accounts of Nick are consistently disturbing—horrific verbal assaults, violent bouts of property destruction, suicide attempts. Janzen recounts long periods of paralyzing misery early in their marriage but notes that, perhaps owing in part to her sheltered upbringing, it never occurred to her to leave him. Instead she dismissed his tirades and learned to live with his controlling behavior for most of her adult life.

Just as the reader feels gut-punched by the raw emotional honesty of an episode about Nick, however, a snarky turn of phrase leaps in to lighten the mood. Time to laugh at the smell of borscht or the geekiness of her modest schoolgirl skirts! Forget the horrors of a cruel husband—isn’t it funny how Mennonites like to have singalongs in German?

Janzen is genuinely funny, but it’s difficult not to read her humor as a survival mechanism in the face of so much pain. This topic-hopping seems like the literary equivalent of thick skin and cheerful denial, the tools that enabled her to endure a decade and a half of constant abuse.

In fact, I’d venture that the many, many anecdotes from her Mennonite youth are woven into this memoir as a defense against focusing solely on the divorce. Janzen wrote this book in the year following Nick’s abandonment; it’s easy to imagine that it could’ve become a serious examination of their disastrous relationship and the psychology behind it. Instead, like a friend who wants to unburden herself without being too much of a downer, she touches on her present crisis again and again, then deftly steps away each time to spin hilarious scenes of her family’s quirks and foibles. In effect, from cover to cover her awkward childhood serves as comic relief for what is at its core a study of her fraught adulthood.

If the book were edited down to this core, it could perhaps be retitled Divorcée in a Retrospective Midlife Crisis. This, of course, would make for a much darker memoir—hardly the sort of hardcover you’d toss in your beach bag with sunscreen and a towel. Janzen’s witty forays into the less depressing phase of her life may or may not shed light on the heavier relationship issues at hand, but they certainly make for a lighter read. Bring on the sun, sand, and sarcasm!