Holiday treat: Rhoda Janzen’s take on Mennonites

I hadn’t heard of either Rhoda Janzen or her new book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, before a post-Christmas browse through a local bookstore. But as I flipped through the pages, I knew I’d have to put it on my holiday reading list. Which I did.

And I loved it. An English professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., Janzen is intimately acquainted with Mennonite history, theology and culture, yet far enough removed to possess the refreshing perspective of one who can skewer them with ease and a certain relish. For those of us who were raised in Mennonite homes and have, through our lives, been alternately repelled by and attracted to various aspects of this faith tradition, Janzen’s memoir of her return home after a series of personal crises was unvarnished, penetrating, insightful and humorous in the deadpan manner of a Mennonite Bob Newhart. The last time I rang up this many LOLs per page was reading Armin Wiebe’s The Salvation of Jasch Siemens.

If I’d been paying closer attention to the denominational press or the book sections of prominent U.S. newspapers, Janzen’s memoir wouldn’t have come as much as a surprise. In the Mennonite Weekly Review, editor Paul Schrag went to great lengths to document the decidedly mixed reception the book has had in Janzen’s home community of Fresno, Calif., where there is much handwringing about the promotion of stereotypes and the biting nature of Janzen’s satire and critiques. A profile of the author by Cathy Horyn in The New York Times, however, is much more revelatory of Janzen’s personality and intent. Erika Schickel’s review in the Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, seems to miss the essence of the book almost entirely.

Janzen has posted a kind of trailer to the book on YouTube, in which she provides some of the anecdotes from the memoir’s opening chapters (see the clip below). The video, however, doesn’t match the wonderfully engaging style that is Rhoda Janzen in print.

Janzen has already reached a deal with her publisher for a kind of sequel, titled Backslider, which Horyn describes as “an ongoing history of a skeptic’s move back to a community of faith.” Which could easily describe Little Black Dress, too. What’s evident from the early pages is that implanted in Janzen’s consciousness is a homing beacon that steadily points the way back to a tradition she thought she’d left — but that evidently had never left her.