Monday, 4 October 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Author: Rhoda Janzen
Genre: Autobiography
Pages: 272
First Line: "The year I turned forty-three was the year I realized I should have never taken my Mennonite genes for granted."
Published: April 2010

Synopsis: Rhoda Janzen describes to the reader how she felt reuniting with her Mennonite family and roots after living in the modern world as a secular academic for the past two decades. Her recent divorce gives her the push needed to go back home to her family to get the healing she requires. This memoire is describes how she now sees her Mennonite upbringing through new eyes.

My Thoughts: I picked up this book as part of my very first book club. From the title alone I was expecting a humourous look into a woman's life who grew up Mennonite but who, as an adult, lived in the modern world. As someone who lives near a Mennonite community I thought that this would be right up my alley and maybe I'd get some insight (hopefully humourous) into what it's like to be raised Mennonite and come back into the fold after a long absense in the living in the modern world. Weeeelll, I was mistaken in my assumptions. Like "they" say 'assuming makes an ass out of you and me'.

Sadly, this book wasn't want I thought it would be. Were there parts that were laugh out loud funny? Definitely!! Unfortunately those situations were far and few between. The first third of the book was quite funny and enjoyable ... but it went downhill from there.

Did I learn more about what it would be like to grow up Mennonite? Not at all. This partly stems from me assuming from the title that Janzen grew up 'old-order' Mennonite (buggies, no electricity ...) which she didn't. This fact didn't make the cultural differences as drastic as I thought they'd be.

The discrepancy between what I assumed and what was written is also due to the fact that I thought that the Mennonite part of the story (hence the title) would be more central to the storyline but it really wasn't. Her parents weren't all that different to many more traditional/old school parents out there. Sadly, I also didn't get the feeling that she respected her heritage or was proud of being Mennonite.

Another beef? Ginormous verbage (aka huge honkin' words!!). Janzen is a highly educated woman (love that!) who could put Mr Webster to shame. She uses huge words that 90% of the population don't use on a yearly basis let alone daily basis. I had to keep looking up words then go "Oh, she could have just used ___ instead!". She almost seemed to be showing off with her word knowledge. "I'll take 'Words No One Uses' for $1000, Alex!".

Sadly, I didn't particularly love the main character (aka author)'s voice. You can have a troubled and flawed character but Rhoda wasn't all that likeable. She reminded me of Lilith from "Frazier" fame. Really cold, unfeeling and detached from what was happening to her. This woman lived through terrible things in her life. From a horrible accident and the resulting complications to losing her husband ... yet she never really tells the reader how she felt during those incidents. She just glosses over them and continues on in her disjointed narrative (which, quite honestly, got really confusing. She jumped around from past to present so often I had a hard time figuring out what period in time she was talking about). Maybe she wanted to keep things light and humourous? Not sure.

Janzen is telling her story and I hope other readers understand that she is, by no means, representing Mennonites as a whole. Overall, I didn't get the impression that she truly respects where she came from. I don't recommend this book.

My Rating: 1.5/5 stars


Linda Jacobs said...

This is refreshingly honest! Great writing! It made me laugh.

Laurie said...

Thanks Linda! I try to be as honest as possible whether I love, like or dislike a book. :)

Ruth said...

I have not read the book, "Mennonite in a little black dress". Thanks for the detailed review. If you're interested in the Mennonite culture I would suggest you read an old book published in 1985 - I notice that you have quite a few titles under historical novels - this would fall into that category precisely.
"My Harp is Turned to Mourning" was written by Al Reimer. The story unfolds in the years 1905-24, a momentous period that saw the secure and prosperous Mennonite colonies in the central Ukraine ravaged by revolution and civil war. It depicts the peace-loving Mennonite - William Fast caught helplessly in the cataclysmic events of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

Another writer who gets a lot of publicity these days is Miriam Toews, winner of the Governor-General's award for English fiction in 2004 for her novel, "A Complicated Kindness". I'm not sure what the criteria was for that award, but I find that her use of foul language in the novel goes way beyond being realistic. Surely, a writer of her caliber isn't so limited in her volcabulary that she can't find other words to use. Non-mennonite readers assume that this story describes what life is like in all Mennonite circles. Not so! Maybe that's why she won an award - her writer SEEMS to be so realistic.

I would also recommend "I Am Hutterite" by Mary-Ann Kirkby - it's a biography of a young Hutterite girl whose family chose to leave the colony to start a new life on their own. Overnight they were thrust into a society they did not understand. The transition was overwhelming. Rich with memorable characters and vivid descriptions, this ground-breaking narrative shines a light on intolerance, illuminating the simple truth that beneath every human exterior beats a heart longing for understanding and acceptance.

Hope you enjoy some of these suggestions.

Laurie@The Baking Bookworm said...

Hi Ruth,
Thanks for the suggestions. I've put two of them down on my 'to read list'. I tried to read "A Complicated Kindness" but just couldn't get through it. A really slow book and it just didn't keep my interest. It's too bad because Toews is a fellow Canadian (like to support them when I can) and I also bought the book. :( I can't remember specifically why I didn't like the book. Perhaps I'll pick it up again in the future and see if I've changed my mind. Thanks again for the suggestions. :)

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