February 19, 2011

MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS

by Rhoda Janzen
272 pages, Atlantic Books

Review by Bill Kirton

I’ll get the only small fault with this book out of the way at the start. The author was brought up a Mennonite but one day, at Vacation Bible School, when she took great delight in painting a poster, the reactions when it was displayed made her start reevaluating the whole faith business. Its ‘aesthetic vision for youth’ recalled images of the Third Reich and she began to question the significance of religion. She broke away, was married for 15 years then, at the age of 40, her ‘brilliant’ husband left her for a man called Bob whom he’d met on gay.com. At the same time, she had a serious car accident and, with nowhere else to go, decided to go home, where she’s welcomed back into the Mennonite community. Her chronicling of that return and the insights she gives into Mennonite customs, wisdoms, and their relationship with the modern world are funny, instructive, fascinating and thought-provoking. Her analysis of her own self is perceptive, acute and unforgiving. The characters she describes are real, sometimes attractive, sometimes not, but always entertaining. And, above all else, her intelligence and her wonderful handling of words is a total delight.

So where’s the ‘fault’ I mentioned? Well, it’s miniscule, and that’s why I want to record it, then forget it, because the book’s a great read. She keeps returning to her betrayal (my word, not hers) by her husband. The act in itself is a good joke – he leaves her after 15 years, but not for another woman, but a man (joke/surprise part 1). The man’s name is Bob (joke/surprise part 2). And he met him on gay.com (joke/surprise part 3). Each part adds to the joke to accumulate into an unthinkable absurdity. But it only works the first and possibly the second time. I know it’s not a joke and it’s a real trauma for the author, but she does repeat it rather too often, and when it’s meant to push home a point, it fails when it’s become too familiar.

But, as I said, it’s minuscule and more than compensated for by all the other delights in the book. Her mother, for example, who still adheres to the Mennonite ways, is priceless. Nothing disgusts or fazes her. As a child, they found a rat in the water but she drank it anyway because, as she said, ‘We were thirsty.’ Adding ‘But we never got the plague!’ As a child she’d regularly eaten lard sandwiches, of which she said ‘I didn’t like it when the lard looked pink. But it tasted okay with salt. Salt brings out the flavor of lard.’ In fact, at the end of the book, the author includes recipes for what she calls ‘the top five shame-based foods for Mennonite youth lunches’. And, of course, it’s her mother who suggests that she should maybe date her first cousin because ‘he owns his own tractor’.

But Janzen’s perceptive gaze and facility with words brings many other characters to life for us. She writes of a teacher’s ‘surly condescension’ and ‘impatient arrogance’. She witnesses a man taking his Chihuahua out onto the lawn, whereupon ‘his voice lifted a full Octave’ as he encouraged the animal to ‘do pee-pees’ over and over again, all of which makes her reflect that ‘It must have been hard to be married to a gay-seeming fellow who pluralised urine in a falsetto’.

And, in the end, it’s this glorious style, this precise, hilarious use of language that makes this such a satisfying read. She describes a spoilt child who’s continually asking for a ‘surprise’ and has a tantrum when there isn’t one in a way which elevates him way beyond his actual status. ‘As he churned there with fists balled and cheeks aflame, his pain swelled until he seemed the very incarnation of pathos. His whole body became a rigid whirling wild thing. He was the emissary of us all, we who felt we had not received our due, we who felt the late afternoon of our lives stung with fury and with sorrow.’

It’s gorgeous stuff, worthy of a woman whose T-shirt bore the message ‘I AM THE GRAMMARIAN ABOUT WHOM YOUR MOTHER WARNED YOU’. A warning borne out elsewhere when she writes ‘I’m the sicko who can explain why a gerundive phrase must attach to a possessive adjective pronoun rather than an object pronoun. True, you wouldn’t want me at a party, but if the survival of the human race depended upon the successful parsing of the Constitution, you’d be knockin’ on my door, baby’.

There’s pathos, compassion, tenderness, love, perception, wisdom, cultural insights, and many other joys in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress but, in the end, I was grateful most of all for the wit and intelligence Janzen brought to the whole thing. I know this review is already too long, but I can’t resist quoting in full this wonderful paragraph which builds through a series of subversive images and ends in the glorious bathos of its final word.

‘Don’t get me wrong;’ she writes. ‘I do love the cognoscenti. There’s always a white scholar who identifies as black. There’s always a cocktail with a retro ingredient such as Tang. There’s always a conceptual artist whose preferred medium is her own menstrual blood. There’s always an endive involving ginger chutney and a dance troupe that refuses to do any actual dancing. There’s always somebody earnestly saying, “Subjective, like productive, is deceptive in that it can be quickly defined, but is not so quickly discussed because of the variant ways in which the definition can be interpreted.” There’s always a fashion–forward woman in a maroon dress, carrying a big matching Vidalia onion as an accessory. Then when you go home afterward, there’s always a malapropistic nanny singing, “Row, Row, row your boat, gently down the street.’

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