Because I was staring down a library due date, last night I started Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home,* and this morning I finished it. Although it did not set me on fire, and I do not feel the need to tell everyone I meet to read it, I did get a lot of good, solid enjoyment and thought out of it. And I appreciate that too.
Janzen grew up in a Mennonite family (she also provides a handy appendix explaining some things about Mennonite faith and history: please note, they're not Amish), but when she left home to pursue her education and career, she largely left the Mennonite community and ways behind, without much in the way of regret. However, after her husband of fifteen years left her for another man (and after she had largely supported him financially and lived through his problems with depression and bipolarity), and after she was involved in a car accident that broke many of her bones and caused other health problems (all in the same month!) she decided to spend some time living with her parents, recuperating and hoping perhaps to understand more about her youth and her reaction to her upbringing.
The book is not so much a memoir as it is a series of interconnected essays, and in each essay she relates a different piece of her childhood, marriage, and Mennonite culture memories. For being a pretty short book, it's also profound in the best possible way: without belaboring its point, without endless pages of poetics and/or unnecessarily drawn-out stories, and with a great deal of humor. Consider this exchange she had with one of her friends, when she is reading to start dating again:
"One of my friends, Carla, who said I could use her real name in this memoir as long as I described her as a svelte redhead, offered to run my love life for five bucks. 'What are you looking for in a guy?' she asked, whipping out a little notepad.
'Hmm,' I said thoughtfully. 'He has to be kind. And culturally literate. And on the path to consciousness...reflective, open. No cynics or angry atheists. He has to have a sense of humor. That's important. And he should be tall. And employed at work he loves. And--'
'Whoa there, Nellie,' Carla interrupted. 'I'm gonna give you some free advice. You ready for this? How about we lower the bar? How about we look for someone who's straight, for starters?'" (p. 21.)
I found that really depressing, but also really hilarious, and it seemed to sum up everything I love about women: you can hope for the best, but most of the time you've just got to get down to the nitty-gritty and do the best with you can find. In all, I liked this book much more for Janzen's overall positivity, which was not of the cloying type, but of the accepting type, and for her female perspective. The Mennonite stuff was interesting to me too but not as fascinating as it might be to some others--although my childhood surroundings weren't as austere as hers (quite), my mother was the type who made arrangements for someone at Girl Scout camp (which I went to maybe twice or three times in my life) to drive me to a mass anywhere nearby if the trip went over a Sunday morning. (So I was not entirely unfamiliar with the theme of religion playing a big part in one's upbringing.) My point is: it's a great little memoir, and there's more than one reason to like it.
*A big shout-out to one of my favorite book recommenders, Katharine. If she hadn't championed this book I probably would have just returned it without trying to get it read first.