Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

It’s my mom’s fault I am such an avid reader.  In the 35 years that I have known my mother, I have never known her to have fewer than five books checked out of the library at a time.  There is a spot near their fireplace that is a bottomless piles of books–the titles change each time I am there, but the pile is constant.

mialbdMysteries are my mom’s brain candy of choice and I would not be surprised if she has read every mystery in our local library.  Twice.  From time to time she will read a non-mystery book that someone recommends to her.  (In fact, she picked up The Great Gatsby after my review of the movie.)  A couple weeks ago she asked me if I had ever read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  It was autobiographical and pretty “cute” my mom said.

Oh, I should also mention that my mom also reads Christian stuff from time to time.  She’s a pretty conservative Christian.

I love funny memoirs. Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro are just two of my favorites, and while I recommend books to my mom from time to time, their brand of humor is not exactly what I picture my conservative Christian mother loving.

So when my mom recommended Janzen’s memoir to me, I figured I would give it a try.  Why not.  The title sounded familiar to me, and when I peeked at the book jacket, I realized that Rhoda Janzen is a local author who teaches at the local Christian College where my mom went.  I figure I probably heard of her in the local paper or something.

Then I started reading and in the first chapter she talks about having a pee bag due to a botch up in a surgery.  I just couldn’t see my mother thinking that a whole section about a pee bag was funny.  Of course I was giggling fiercely.

And then the author’s husband leaves her for a guy named Bob from  And then she uses the “f” word.  And then talks about pubic hair.  The book was funny.  But it was somehow even funnier that my mom thought it was “cute”.

The book is a memoir about the author’s mental and emotional journey after her divorce with her husband who left her for a guy  named Bob from  Janzen has a PhD, teaches English at Hope College, and has a Mennonite background.  After her husband leaves her, Janzen heads back west to her Mennonite parents…and past.

Janzen spends a good deal of the book talking about her mother, a  nurse.  I related so much to their relationship.  No, my mother is not a Mennonite, nor did she dress me in homemade dresses when I was younger, nor did she forbid dancing or blue jeans or TV.  But my mom and dad were pretty conservative and I didn’t exactly follow the same religious path they did.

My mom, like Janzen’s, cooks for people when then have babies or deaths.  My mom can support her life choices with scripture.  My mom didn’t get super BFF with me when I was a kid and have secret “girl talks” about my body or sex or anything.  But at the same time, my mom supports me even though I am just like her and not like her at all.  At the same time.

She offers me unconditional love and grounding…even if she doesn’t approve of my damn swearing or of how I bring up the subject of poop frequently.

That’s probably why, even though I laughed at the fact that my mother’s recommended a book where the author was “crass” (as my mother would say) and talked about “smutty” topics (as my mother would say), I was not totally surprised.

I loved how Janzen weaved the traditions of the Mennonites with her own thoughts on religion and spirituality as well as with her own personal narrative of growing up in and then leaving the community.  She is intelligent (her vocabulary makes me swoon…English Majors unite!) and witty.  Things don’t always come up roses for her (um, Bob?  Not really awesome), but she has a great attitude and it’s clear she attributes it to the community she was raised in, even if she doesn’t share some of their same hardcore beliefs.

I think I also connected with Janzen’s story because her spiritual journey is a lot like mine.  I have been attempting from time to time to hammer out some of my thoughts on the blog, but she is much more eloquent about it…even when she uses the word “shit”.

I really enjoyed the book.  It got mixed reviews both on (where you can “friend” me) and from the people to whom I mentioned I was reading it.  I read it in five days, (which is fast when you are running a house and have two demanding small boys–one who has all but dropped napping), so I would classify it as a great summer read.

Tell me, have you read this book and what did you think?  Do you enjoy funny memoirs or do you stick to fiction?  Talk to me, Goose.

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  1. I do enjoy memoirs, even more so if they’re funny! I’ll add this to my reading list.

    • me too, in fact yesterday my mom gave me the follow up by Janzen, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? Oh man. I am excited!

  2. So I just started last night David Sedaris’ new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It’s a pretty great book, after the few heavies I’ve read over the past couple months. I remember when this book came out, I wanted to read it. Might have to pick it up this summer, sounds like something I would like.

    • Oh! That Sedaris book is on my summer list! And I read some heavy books just before this too, so I was ready for something quick and funny.

  3. Both of my parents were readers, my dad more avid than my mom, but we always had a lot of books. I thank mentally thank them for giving that to me every time I dive into a really good book.

    • me too. I also mentally thank them every time I know something because I am a reader…which is most of the time. 🙂

  4. Putting this on my list! I love memoirs, especially funny ones. And a love of reading is one thing I do share with my mom. When she visits, she always brings me things she’s read, and she loves to “shop” my shelves when she’s visiting. It’s one of our few connections. 🙂

    • I love that! My mom just gave me the follow up to this one. It’s called Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? I think I shall like it, but you’ll hear about it here either way.

  5. I’m a memoir fan. Jeannette Wall’s Glass Houses is one of my favorites. I’ll have to check this one out. It sounds like something *my* mom would also think was cute.

    • I love a good memoir too. It’s hard for me to turn one away if it comes recommended 🙂

  6. I’ve debated reading it a few times but haven’t picked it up yet.

  7. I read this last year and loved it. I actually recommended it to my mom for a myriad of reasons.

    I didn’t feel like I was reading a narrative, more like having a conversation with a good friend. I enjoyed the stories involving her mother both for their comedy and their honesty.

    • Yes, it was like being on the other end of a phone conversation. That is a great way to describe it. she’s a VERY conversational writer. I think that is why people either love it or hate it. Some people don’t like that kind of writing (which I noticed in other reviews), but I love it.

  8. From the title, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be reading about here. My husband grew up surrounded (and babysat by) Mennonites, so I know a little bit about them and how conservative they can be. This sounds right up my alley, though. It might be next on my list!

  9. I don’t want to make this all about me BUT (grin) I wonder if your mom would like my memoir. It’s a coming to faith story so the whole first part happens before I have faith, but then it’s all about how God had been working from the very beginning. I’m (now) a conservative Christian too, although I’m not conservative on loving people who live and believe differently than me.

    I think I would like this book. I’m not crazy about Christian books that are only discernible by the use of the word God, but which read like truck driver’s rant. But I like books that are real and raw like it sounds like this one is.

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  1. […] Mennonite in a Little Black Dress  by Rhoda Janzen […]

  2. […] I said, I really identified with this book and I am glad my mom introduced me to Rhoda Janzen’s writing. I would never have imagined that I would enjoy reading about someone’s “spiritual […]