Mennonite in a little black dress: Rhoda Janzen

My 3 months in Belize in 2008 introduced me to the Mennonites (click here), an old low German-speaking Christian community that migrated from the Netherlands over 400 years ago. This tightly knit conservative group spent many years in the Ukraine before migrating to Canada, and then south through the US to Central and South America. Wherever they settled, they clung assiduously to their pacifism, to their traditional way of life and to their industrious work ethic.

Rhoda Janzen left her Californian Mennonite community to pursue her studies at University, a radical course not just for a Mennonite, but especially for a girl. She turned her back on her upbringing, marrying an atheist, going through a messy divorce after 15 years together, suffering an almost life-threatening illness, followed by a car accident caused by a drunken youth. These crises led to her taking a sabbatical break from her teaching, and returning to her family and the Mennonite environment that she had forsaken as a teenager. My expectation of this memoir was to immerse myself in a lengthy tirade about the injustices and hardships of a Mennonite upbringing, but it was quite the reverse. Janzen liberally held up the Mennonite traditions for close scrutiny, and even assessed them with a wry self-mocking humour, but we discover that her relationship with her mother was a key factor and was very influential in the return of the ‘prodigal daughter’ to the community.

What really surprised me was that her Mennonite upbringing (contrary to expectation) actually provided her with many of the ethical and social tools to get through her crises and, though there was no real sign of her re-conversion, there were clear hints of the author finally coming to terms with her past and appreciating many of the values that equipped her for life.


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on March 4, 2012, in Book reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Frank Burns,

    I wonder why you say that her upbringing — “contrary to expectation” — “provided her with many of the ethical and social tools to get through her crises.”

    What was your expectation? That her up-bringing had no or little ethical or social tools, I guess. Why is that?

    There are a lot of good things about two-holers, pea-shelling and Pluma Moos– mainly the moms and grandmas who go with it, who come along with that kind of childhood.

    My Mennonite up-bringing was not unlike hers. In some ways more modern, in some ways less so. My mom is similarly funny and outrageous.

    I see you thought the book would be about “the injustices and hardships of a Mennonite upbringing.”

    That is odd, at least until you read “I am a Hutterite.” That book does speak about injustices and hardships, but not in the way you think.

    Charlynn Toews

    • I do appreciate those reflections, Charlynn, and my comments reveal nothing about my own reactions (because I know so little about the Mennonite tradition) but something about my expectations concerning the author’s reactions to her own upbringing. The “Misery Memoir” is currently a very popular modern literary genre (cf. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt, and many others), and many authors have cashed in on the public’s insatiable appetite for such reading. When I picked up this book, I fully expected it to be within this genre……..but, of course, it wasn’t, and that is why it was ‘contrary to expectation’.
      I have ‘no axe to grind’ concerning the Mennonite way of life. When I was in Belize, I was in admiration of all the good things they achieved (and continue to achieve). There are many good things to be learned from their traditions.

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