Laughing With the Mennonites


With so much bad news seeming always to dominate the media --  the economy or global warming, worldwide atrocities, grizzly cases of childhood abduction, or highlights of graphic murder -- it was fun to find a book that just made me laugh out loud. 

If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's comical insight into the next journey after marital heartbreak, Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress should appeal to you.  It is launched from a similar situation, but is less self-absorbed. Janzen provides a hilarious look at her Mennonite heritage after her seemingly perfect world turns upside down at the age of forty-three.  If a hysterectomy gone wrong that leaves her with a leaky pee bag for months is not enough of a set back, her perfect husband of fifteen years leaves her shortly after gaining back her continence and a celebratory move to an expensive lakefront home.  He leaves for a guy named Bob that he met on, and within a week Rhoda is seriously injured an automobile accident.

Thus begins the story of her return from Michigan for a holiday and sabbatical stay in the California community where she was raised. Her observations about her family are comical but with loving insight from her writer's attention to detail. There is her mother (who has no neck but looks don't count in the Mennonite faith), the ultimate spokesperson for an unselfconscious mixture of earthy observations about life, religion, and body parts who suggests that Rhoda fix her life by marrying her first cousin who has a good work ethic.  He drives a tractor after all and is therefore a better choice than the religious pothead who wears pajamas that she is dating (but might be OK if she waits two years).  Meanwhile, her mother and her house will serve the lord, thank you. There is her father, the tall and attractive preacher, who commands perfect leadership both in church and in the home. And there is such a cast of other family characters and community friends that I frequently had to turn back the pages to keep track, meanwhile wishing that I was reading this on an e-reader and could jump back to the introductions.

The story casts insight into the Mennonite culture, frequently confused with the Amish who were a break-off from the Mennonites who were considered too liberal. Rhoda's family is typically transitional between the old world and the new.  Her father has not quite accepted cell phones, but happily keeps interrupting her work to see the dancing e-cards or amazing pictures and clever sayings that he has discovered on his computer.

So the question of this story, which I'll leave to the reader to discover while they laugh their way through one comical scene after another, is whether Rhoda can find comfort and stability in embracing her Amish roots and what lessons such a differing historic culture  has to offer.  Although much understanding is embedded in the story there is a most helpful history primer added after the biographical narrative ends.

This  book is available through the Orange County Libraries in hardbound book, paperback, or large print format.  The author's website can be found here. Readers who enjoy such humor might also enjoy the books of Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, or the humor genre suggestions on the Book Talk page. As the Reader's Digest notes, laughter may be the best medicine of all.

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