Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Rhoda Janzen is a poet who teaches at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, is about the turmoil of her early 40s. Over the course of two years, Janzen had a hysterectomy (which resulted in a year of her having to pee into a bag); her husband of 15 years left her for a man he met on gay.com; and she was in a serious car accident. Yes, this is a funny book.

Once her bones had started to heal from the accident, Janzen decided to go home to her parents in California. Her father was once the “Mennonite [Brethren] equivalent of the Pope.” I knew almost nothing about Mennonites before I read this book; I always thought of them as Amish but with buttons and cars. That isn’t entirely wrong (they do have buttons and cars), but there are other aspects of modern life that Mennonites shun, or at least shunned during Janzen’s childhood. That list includes drinking, dancing, gambling, card-playing and Ouija boards. The other holes in Janzen’s childhood experiences include an absence of Lite-Brights (I loved Lite-Bright!), Barbie’s Dream House, Bonnie Bell Lip-Smackers (I had quite a collection of those, including root beer flavor) and popular music.

A sub-set of the Anabaptists, the Amish spilt from the Mennonites in the late 17th century. The Mennonites, being unwelcome in the German-speaking countries, found a haven in what is now Ukraine, under the protection of Catherine the Great (German herself). Mennonites are non-violent to the point where the men receive exemptions from military service and are opposed to the death penalty. They also live in opposition to the consumer society. I have heard in the NYC subway fantastic a capella close-harmony singing by Mennonites; they were handing out CDs. I took one, hoping that it was music, but it turned out to be sermons. When Jantzen describes her difficulties with the Mennonites, they are identical to mine with the Catholics: no female clergy (although she implies this may be changing); no abortion (or as she puts it, “Judge the mother, love the baby”); no homosexuality; and the “traditionally narrow definition of salvation.”

The book is not just about the Mennonites, of course. It’s about confronting yourself and your past; it’s about facing the reality of getting divorced in your 40s. There are many adventures ahead of you, no doubt, but given age and a hysterectomy, having children is not among them. Jantzen does not shirk facing the truths in her marriage (like the fact that she knew that her ex-husband had relationships with men before they met), either. But for all of that, there is something ultimately joyful about Jantzen’s book and her journey.

For more about Janzen and her book, there’s a q. and a. with her at www.time.com; and a review in the New York Times Book Review this week: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/books/review/Christensen-t.html?ref=review

Disclaimer: A few weeks ago, someone from Henry Holt approached me about reviewing Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I said sure, and received my review copy.

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