Monday, January 31, 2011

Mennonite In A Little Black Dress

By Rhoda Janzen
Allen & Unwin, ($36.99)
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

This best-selling memoir has been compared to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors which I think is doing it a disservice. For Janzen isn’t nearly so tears-in-the-eyes funny as Burroughs but nor is she so merciless or self-obsessed.

Janzen is a US academic, and her memoir begins as life deals her a double whammy when her husband leaves her for a man he’s met on and a drunk driver smashes head-on into her car. Injured both physically and emotionally she retreats to the family she’s spent a lifetime rebelling against.

Janzen’s parents are devout Mennonites, part of a tight-knit uber-traditional Christian community who forswear frivolous stuff like dancing and drinking – sort of like the Amish except without the horses and carts and the separation from the rest of society.

Going home is a total immersion into a life Janzen rejected as a young woman and a community that despite this welcomes her back with open arms.

A quirky and mischievous writer, Janzen has a well-developed sense of fun that she gives free rein to when it comes to describing the characters in her family. There’s her terrifyingly candid and nosey sister-in-law, her imperious Mennonite minister father and, best of all, her relentlessly and hilariously positive mother who can even see the upside of having to wear underwear made from flour sacks as a child – the pretty floral print apparently.

Janzen is especially amusing in the section where she lists Mennonite foods of shame – the things she was embarrassed to carry in childhood lunchboxes like damp persimmon cookies, potato salad in margarine containers, meatballs made with saltine crackers and something called Hollapse that involves cabbage being boiled, browned and baked. Ironically since the book first appeared in the US Janzen has been pestered for recipes for these very shame-based foods and in this edition some are included in a section at the back.

And that’s really the overall theme of this memoir. It’s a journey of discovery into the past with Janzen reconnecting with the values she rejected and finding the worth that's been in them all along. While she’s most often light-hearted her writing is also honest and profound whether she’s describing a marriage that was clearly ill-fated from the start or examining the notion of faith and what it really means.
Unlike Running With Scissors (which I adored by the way) this is a memoir that’s written with love.


Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 30 January, 2011.

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