Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: An "Old Mennonite" Review

When I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (http://www.amazon.com/Mennonite-Little-Black-Dress-Memoir/dp/080508925X) late at night, the bed posts shook. I had to choke back gargantuan guffaws in order not to wake my Mennonite husband. The last time that happened, I was reading Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Before that, David Sedaris, Michael Perry, and sections of Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven also left me shaking soundlessly. I hate when this happens, since I have to stay under the covers while I read. Sleeping in the nude has its disadvantages.

If that is “TMI”–too much information–for you, gentle reader, beware of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. You will blush often. Right away, on page two, the word “tit” appears in a discussion of breast cancer, and Janzen tells you that she and her women kin have none. Tits, that is. After that, more intimate details follow: discussions of menstrual flow, pee, whangs, thangs, the Big Job, pubes, and farts, just for a few examples. I admit that I laughed often about subjects that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, could have been not only unfunny but a total waste of time. More than anything else, this book reminded me of dorm-room conversations in (a Mennonite) college in the late 1960s where we exercised our growing vocabulary and vented our sexual curiosity. We cut through both piety and naivete–our own and others– with boatloads of sarcasm.

But this is a mid-life memoir, not a late-night, 60s-era bull session. Our memoir heroine is a college professor, not a college student. She’s written a version of the coming-of-age story as a middle-aged woman, and she pulls it off with great verve and style.

Janzen earns the right to hilarious descriptions of body parts and functions because her own body is central to her story. First, she has an operation to remove her uterus which resulted in a punctured bladder, requiring her to wear a “pee bag.” Though she makes a complete recovery, she endures months of convalescence, including an improvised trip to Nordstrom Rack with the pee bag disguised inside a colorful tote so she can wear it like a purse. About a year later, Janzen hears from Nick, her husband of 15 years, that he has met a man named Bob on gay.com and wants a divorce. A week after that bombshell hits, a young drunk driver nearly kills her as she drove on snow-covered roads in Michigan. She crawls back home to California at Christmas and returns to an ethnic/religious culture –the Mennonites–she had gladly left behind years ago. Odd juxtapositions, bizarre memories, and witty critiques ensue. There you have it–the plot gets no thicker.

I’ve always admired humorists, from Twain to Keillor to Sedaris. And I have noticed that there are few women on that list, just like there are few women late night or Comedy Central talk show hosts–a fact that ought to change. I think Rhoda Janzen could break the literary humor glass ceiling. As a woman, Mennonite, and writer, I can only say, “You go, girl!!!”

Now for the other side of the story. As much as I laughed while reading the book and as much as I celebrate the word “Mennonite conjoined” with “funny” in other reviews of this book, I cringed while reading more than once. No one laughs harder at a Mennonite joke than a Mennonite–unless it is cruel or inaccurate.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, calls this memoir “wincingly funny.” I didn’t wince hard at the obvious candidates–the racy or sometimes too-cute language, the author’s physical and emotional pain, or her critique of the small worldview of her own family. The portrait of her mother Mary is utterly brilliant. Janzen takes huge risks revealing highly personal information that most daughters would die to write and most mothers would die to read–or would commit daughter-cide after reading. But she also convinces us that her mother is so ego-free and so unconcerned about normal barriers between public and private life that we, too, can relax and enjoy the kind of earth-mother love that has the power of creation and re-creation in it.

It’s also clear that her mother’s healing love made this book possible. I thought of Julia Kasdorf’s frequently anthologized What I Learned from My Mother as I read about Mary. I also thought of my own mother, and I gave thanks for the indomitable, oblivious, fashion-challenged caregivers of the world whose faith is in their eyes, and hands, and hearts.

What I Learned From My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love

the living, to have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants

still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars

large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole

grieving household, to cube home-canned pears

and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins

and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.

I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know

the deceased, to press the moist hands

of the living, to look in their eyes and offer

sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.

I learned to believe I had the power to ease

awful pains materially like an angel.

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

you know how to do this, you can never refuse.

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Janzen’s mother has all the healing qualities of Kasdorf’s mother persona–without the sexual hang-ups. We love her for her healing and for her freedom.

I winced less for the treatment of the Mennonite characters in this book, ironically, than I did for those who were grafted into the story either through marriage or friendship. One of the major controversies in memoir writing is how much we owe to other people in our stories. Annie Dillard sets the memoir high bar: “I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press. They can’t defend themselves.”

Janzen does not appear to hold such scruples and will go far for a joke (or even for revenge?). One wonders what future Thanksgiving dinners will be like in the Janzen household. Sisters-in-law Staci and Deena come across as vastly inferior in sensitivity and taste than Rhoda and her sister Hannah. Janzen mentions the fact that she has seen Staci only a few times in the last five years. She damns with faint praise, approving of Staci’s honesty in not pretending to closeness she does not feel and then quotes the thoughtless things Staci said to her. Staci could certainly not enjoy seeing these words in print, even if she said every word between the quotation marks, which could only be the case if Janzen has perfect recall.

Finally, there is the issue of marketing and commodification of culture. Like James Frey, who made his addictions stronger and jail time longer in his book than they really were, Janzen sometimes makes her own upbringing sound more sectarian or perhaps more exotic than it may have been. She conflates two denominations and two different ethnicities, picking and choosing ones which will serve the purpose of entertaining her primary audience (the literary and academic elite whose haute cuisine and haute couture fascinate the author as much as the pale blue embroidered silk envelope she clutched as a child). Such readers won’t care if her ethnography is accurate in every detail.

The first U.S. Mennonite writer (Rudy Wiebe preceded her in Canada) to break into the literary high culture was poet Julia Kasdorf, cited above, with four poems in The New Yorker in the early 1990s and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize in 1991. These poems turned the liability of being a Mennonite from the provinces into a fascinating counter-cultural phenomenon and helped to create a flourishing sub-genre of American literature unapologetically called Mennonite writing.

The problem of being a Mennonite writer is that you cannot be one completely un-self-consciously anymore, and too much self-consciousness has ruined many a writer. Self-consciousness is to writers what the sin of pride is to Mennonites. Try to be humble and a minute later you will be proud of it. Try to erase self, and you are soon looking in the mirror. Perhaps awareness of the paradox itself is the only answer to this dilemma. Mennonite poet Jeff Gundy uses humor as a gentle prod to himself as well as to other poets Julia Kasdorf and Jean Janzen (Rhoda is not the first published Mennonite writer with this name). Here is a fragment from the beginning stanza of his “How to Write the New Mennonite Poem” anthologized by editor and poet Ann Hostetler in a cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry:

Get the word “Mennonite” in at least

twice, once in the title, along with zwiebach

vareniki, borscht, and the farm,

which if possible should be lost by now.

No longer Die Stille im Lande (the silent in the land), Mennonites now have the responsibilities of telling their many stories as honestly as possible. How do commerce, marketing, branding affect this agenda? Actually, much in the same way that the word “Amish” affects sales of furniture, cheese, space heaters, and chicken–very positively!

Did you know that Amish “bonnet rippers”–romance novels–are among the best selling books in America right now? That one author alone–Beverly Lewis–has sold more than 13.5 million copies of her chaste love stories? The field is exploding, and The Wall Street Journal and Time have taken notice, along with bloggers and, of course, book publishers.

Every writer struggles with marketing issues as a necessity of 21st-century publication, and every publisher wants an angle. But what is the responsibility for accuracy, especially since people buy memoirs because they want the real thing, true stories? Take the cover of this book as a case in point. I would love to have eavesdropped in the office of Henry Holt publishers as editors and designers chose the book cover. Did the conversation go something like this? –“Let’s show some leg, skirt blowing up like Marilyn Monroe’s– and then let’s dangle one of those funny hats the Amish wear right under the word “mennonite”! Never mind that neither Janzen nor her family ever wore distinctively religious garb of the Amish or “old Mennonites.” The author can explain all that after the book is published. In the meantime, book browsers in Barnes & Noble will be attracted to something we know sells well–sexual and Amish imagery combined.

Janzen tells us that her father was like the “pope” at one time of the “North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States.” If you Google this denominational name, you will find that it does not exist. What did exist (before the separation between the U.S. and Canadian members) was a group called the North American Conference of Mennonite Brethren. Like the casual browsers in the bookstore who see an Amish image on the cover, most readers will never know, or care, that Janzen’s branch of the Mennonite family is called Mennonite Brethren, a smaller denomination than the Mennonite Church-USA. Janzen tries to preempt criticism of such fine points by making fun of factual accuracy in her savagely funny Mennonite History Primer appendix. I enjoyed her romp through the past and recognize poetic license when I see it, but I also think I recognize licensing of the Mennonite “brand.” That kind of license is a whole other kettle of fish . . . or borscht. . . or shoofly pie.

How much do these two issues of compassion and integrity matter in memoir? They matter a lot; the genre will only continue to prosper if readers can trust the author. Fortunately, the lapses cited above are just that, lapses. They do not permanently mar the integrity of this fine coming home story. The author may not have chosen the cover, Staci may well be proud of her portrait in this book, and Janzen might be so removed from her former Mennonite Brethren community that she has forgotten its name. If any or all of these things are true, I retract my critique.

Mary Karr recently said that if the antagonist of your memoir is not you, you have not gone far enough. Rhoda Janzen has already gone further into the comedy and memoir worlds than any American writer born of Mennonite (or Mennonite Brethren) parents.

Here is my wish for her future: may she borrow more of her mother’s kindness and a tad more of her father’s integrity– without losing an ounce of her own wonderful chutzpah. And may she turn a forgiving but clear-eyed focus on her true antagonist, herself.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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125 Responses to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: An "Old Mennonite" Review

  1. Chelsea says:

    I also really liked the portrait of her mother–and the appendix! So hard to say about accuracy in these kinds of things–there were definitely some things that I found hard to believe. That happens to me with David Sedaris, too. I try to just forget about that aspect. I like the idea of being so honest you are the antagonist as well as the protagonist.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Perhaps there is a built-in tension between the kind of exaggeration required of humor and the “truth” test for the label of memoir?? Thanks for this comment. I had not thought of this problem in exactly this way before. I want to think about it more.I confess to being a fan of gentle humor–Garrison Keillor's type. He may flirt with sentimentality at times, but I would rather risk that flaw than the other one–inflicting pain–especially on my family. On the other hand, I walked that tightrope myself with “My Mother's Pulpit” because my dear mother did not read that story until after it was published. Readers, and subjects, sense whether a portrait was written for the author's sake alone or whether there is concern for the subject also. Is love present under the critique or exaggerated portrait?Janzen usually gets this right. But there were times I felt sorry for family members, especially when they were being judged solely on matters of taste.

  3. ann_hostetler says:

    Shirley, thanks for this wincingly honest and incisive review. You've brought the full layers of your experience as reader, writer, and Mennonite college president to it! I also appreciate your laying out the MB/MC distinction. Mennonite writers will be able to go into deeper territory because of Rhoda's book, and your critical reading will help readers better understand the complexity of adopting a “Mennonite” label. One thing I think she gets at that I haven't seen elsewhere–and she doesn't outright say it–is the way that feminine passivity that has been so deeply bred into (some) Mennonite women that they can't even recognize it as a liability in an abusive relationship. Her father the Mennonite pope, her mother the always cheerful nurse . . . and the obedient daughter turned tongue-in-cheek memoirist after the marriage implodes. This, I think, would be interesting to explore in a book group.

  4. babsland says:

    I saw this book and requested our local library to obtain it so I could read it without buying it (how very menno of me, eh?; for some reason when I saw it, I think I intuited many of the things you wrote about, although I am sure I could never have articulated it as clearly as you. I am still looking forward to reading it….now, if I could just figure out how to market my own “Mennoniteness” for personal gain…hmmm….

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Perhaps there is a built-in tension between the kind of exaggeration required of humor and the “truth” test for the label of memoir?? Thanks for this comment. I had not thought of this problem in exactly this way before. I want to think about it more.I confess to being a fan of gentle humor–Garrison Keillor's type. He may flirt with sentimentality at times, but I would rather risk that flaw than the other one–inflicting pain–especially on my family. On the other hand, I walked that tightrope myself with “My Mother's Pulpit” because my dear mother did not read that story until after it was published. Readers, and subjects, sense whether a portrait was written for the author's sake alone or whether there is concern for the subject also. Is love present under the critique or exaggerated portrait?Janzen usually gets this right. But there were times I felt sorry for family members, especially when they were being judged solely on matters of taste.

  6. mariapwr says:

    I actually felt that Janzen was at her best when she was telling the stories about herself and her ex-husband (and was not talking as much about Mennonite stuff). Those stories felt incredibly raw, straight, retained the humor, and were very compelling. By contrast, I felt that her commentaries on her re-entry into the Mennonite culture very quickly got cutesy and farfetched, and she seemed to be trying too hard. But maybe that is because I am reading this from my own Mennonite perspective. Would be interesting to hear how non-Menno's are reacting to the book.I am glad that Shirley pointed out the Mennonite Brethren issue. In reading the book I found myself somewhat disappointed reading descriptions of “Mennonites” that felt quite foreign from my own Mennonite experience. Surely part of that is the fact that she is from the Mennonite Brethren tradition which has its differences from the Mennonite Church-USA.But it was a truly fun read and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    • Toews says:

      Re various Mennonite branches and splinters…

      So a Mennonite woman is rescued from a desert island after many years.

      The rescuers notice various structures she has built over the years and ask her about them. “What is this first building here?”

      “This is my home,” she replies, “where I lay my head down at night and eat my simple foods and pray before sleeping.”

      “And that building over there? What is that?”

      “That is my church, where I would go every Sunday morning to pray and worship, singing praises to God.”

      “And the third building over there, what is that?”

      “Oh, that?” she says, “that is the church I USED TO go to.”

      • shirleyhs says:

        Toews,

        You made me chuckle. I’m sure lots of others will enjoy the joke also. Reminds me of a(n apocryphal?) story I heard about Roger Williams (found of the Baptist Church in America) being asked if he could trust that his church was pure. The church had whittled to just Williams and his wife, and he wasn’t sure about her.

  7. ann_hostetler says:

    Shirley, thanks for this wincingly honest and incisive review. You've brought the full layers of your experience as reader, writer, and Mennonite college president to it! I also appreciate your laying out the MB/MC distinction. Mennonite writers will be able to go into deeper territory because of Rhoda's book, and your critical reading will help readers better understand the complexity of adopting a “Mennonite” label. One thing I think she gets at that I haven't seen elsewhere–and she doesn't outright say it–is the way that feminine passivity that has been so deeply bred into (some) Mennonite women that they can't even recognize it as a liability in an abusive relationship. Her father the Mennonite pope, her mother the always cheerful nurse . . . and the obedient daughter turned tongue-in-cheek memoirist after the marriage implodes. This, I think, would be interesting to explore in a book group.

  8. babsland says:

    I saw this book and requested our local library to obtain it so I could read it without buying it (how very menno of me, eh?; for some reason when I saw it, I think I intuited many of the things you wrote about, although I am sure I could never have articulated it as clearly as you. I am still looking forward to reading it….now, if I could just figure out how to market my own “Mennoniteness” for personal gain…hmmm….

  9. mariapwr says:

    I actually felt that Janzen was at her best when she was telling the stories about herself and her ex-husband (and was not talking as much about Mennonite stuff). Those stories felt incredibly raw, straight, retained the humor, and were very compelling. By contrast, I felt that her commentaries on her re-entry into the Mennonite culture very quickly got cutesy and farfetched, and she seemed to be trying too hard. But maybe that is because I am reading this from my own Mennonite perspective. Would be interesting to hear how non-Menno's are reacting to the book.I am glad that Shirley pointed out the Mennonite Brethren issue. In reading the book I found myself somewhat disappointed reading descriptions of “Mennonites” that felt quite foreign from my own Mennonite experience. Surely part of that is the fact that she is from the Mennonite Brethren tradition which has its differences from the Mennonite Church-USA.But it was a truly fun read and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Yes, Ann! I can only imagine the lively conversations book groups could have with this issue. I recognized the analysis of Mennonite patriarchy in the book too, especially in the portraits of her father and the discussion of in-bred passivity on the part of women and girls. And clearly part of the healing story is the self-recognition of the her own passivity. I was glad she described one reality (sexism) and balanced it with another –the character of Eva–one of the very best things in the book. The deepest self-reflection Janzen does comes in the last chapter with the introduction of Eva and the recognition that Eva came from the same (patriarchal) culture but somehow developed a calm self-assurance that the author appreciates and perhaps envies a little. Eva keeps the book rooted. She and her family are in fact not only the “road not taken” for Janzen but perhaps harbingers of the road ahead.

  11. shirleyhs says:

    Si Janzen would be proud of you. Library books are second only to coupons! Let me know what you think of the book after you read it.

  12. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Maria, for adding these thoughts. Your observation about the value of the most personal sections of the book ring true to me. In the memoir genre the reader expects access to the author's inner life. The last chapter does this best of all, in my opinion.

  13. shirleyhs says:

    Yes, Ann! I can only imagine the lively conversations book groups could have with this issue. I recognized the analysis of Mennonite patriarchy in the book too, especially in the portraits of her father and the discussion of in-bred passivity on the part of women and girls. And clearly part of the healing story is the self-recognition of the her own passivity. I was glad she described one reality (sexism) and balanced it with another –the character of Eva–one of the very best things in the book. The deepest self-reflection Janzen does comes in the last chapter with the introduction of Eva and the recognition that Eva came from the same (patriarchal) culture but somehow developed a calm self-assurance that the author appreciates and perhaps envies a little. Eva keeps the book rooted. She and her family are in fact not only the “road not taken” for Janzen but perhaps harbingers of the road ahead.

  14. shirleyhs says:

    Si Janzen would be proud of you. Library books are second only to coupons! Let me know what you think of the book after you read it.

  15. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Maria, for adding these thoughts. Your observation about the value of the most personal sections of the book ring true to me. In the memoir genre the reader expects access to the author's inner life. The last chapter does this best of all, in my opinion.

  16. amishguitar says:

    Hello Shirley. I've not yet read the book, but not for the lack of suggestions. I do think you're spot on about the subtle lack of accuracy on the whole MB thing. I don't like it when my boss tells me I'm wrong when I try to explain that the author's father was not “the pope” of my particular shade of Mennonite. My boss now feels like she “understands me” better as a Mennonite even though I've never worn a black dress.

  17. shirleyhs says:

    Kevin, your comment shows the reader how ambiguous and complex Mennonite identity can be. I hope you read the book and come back to comment on it here or blog about it yourself. Would love to know what works and what does not for you. For me, the first and last chapters are the best.

  18. Pingback: The Reviewer’s Role: Is A Touch of Memoir Appropriate, Honest, Intrusive, Something Else? | 100 Memoirs

  19. Larry says:

    A wonderful review Shirley. I am interested in (and concerned about) the ways in which the memoir genre seems to have shifted over the years, and hope to find time to give Zinsser's book (with Annie Dillard's piece) a closer look soon.Other issues aside, I'm surprised to see two things not discussed by reviewers: The first is that Janzen's book took family members by surprise, even as she wrote it in her parents' back yard! Other (some, not all) memoir writers seem to have engaged family and friends more openly about their projects. As a Social Scientist, if I ever treated research “subjects” that way it would be considered unethical.The second issue is the defense of intent. Janzen clearly is aware of how feminists have rightly forced us to recognize that it is the effect of our actions, not the intent, that matters. This rule has prevailed in the law with regard to such things as sexual harassment. “I didn't mean it to be hurtful” is no more an acceptable excuse for memoir writing than it is for gender relations in the workplace.Affirming your positive points about her book, I hope she will take the advice of your last paragraph. With a follow-up in the works, I guess we'll see whether she can take that advice to heart or if “marketing” (read money) is still the bottom line.

  20. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Larry,Thanks for offering this comment–and a perspective I had not thought of before. Memoirist's family members are “human subjects”–in the language of your field. Wow, if writers had to meet the criteria ethics committees now require, that would be a high bar indeed!

  21. shirleyhs says:

    Found a great NYTimes article about the writer and other people. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/24/books/writers

  22. Woolie says:

    Shirley, thank you for this fine review. You hit several nails squarely on the head. I have in mind especially your remarks about the Mennonite brand, and the way Janzen conflates, to good marketing effect, “Old” Mennonites–a friend of mine once called them “the dour Swiss”–and Mennonite Brethren. Of course, now that you have admitted to sleeping in the nude (really? in Michigan?!), “dour” hardly applies. Your admission is no more likely to require confession before the church than was “Agnes Ollenburger's” admission of liposuction, a story Janzen tells. I have known Janzen's father, “Si” (not his real name), for many years–rather, I knew him many years ago. I knew him as a man whose sense of humor, quick wit, and turn of phrase could send a group into gales of laughter. Rhoda Janzen (now Burton) clearly loves her mother, but she is also her father's daughter. On one point, Shirley, I disagree with you. You write that “The first Mennonite writer to break into the literary high culture was poet Julia Kasdorf.” That may be true if you limit yourself to the US, but Rudy Wiebe has long been–and was the first Mennonite anywhere to be–in the literary stratosphere. Both Janzen and Wiebe grew up as MB's. Both refer quite often to sex, though nothing Wiebe has written would require an explanation of something like what Janzen calls “titfuck” (the correct term is “tittifuck,” of course). But while Janzen is finding her way in and against and to faith–she now attends church–Wiebe has remained a self-confessing Christian who writes stories. I am happy to include myself with both of them as an ex-MB, though one without literary talent. I find it interesting that both Rhoda Janzen and Rudy Wiebe will be speaking at Calvin College's 2010 Festival of Faith and Writing. Rudy WiebeCalvin

  23. shirleyhs says:

    Dear Woolie,Love your name. Thanks for these great comments. It's fun to see a fuller picture emerge as people who know the author and her family begin to chime in. Oh yes, you are right about Rudy Wiebe and all the Canadian Mennonite writers who broke the trail before Julia Kasdorf in the U.S. I meant to put the U.S. qualifier in there. I'm not sure what blog protocol is on making changes after hitting the “publish” button, but I think I can add things. I'm off to do that now.And yes, it's about time to go find a flannel nightgown–after the temps drop below 20 degrees. 🙂

  24. shirleyhs says:

    About Calvin College–I plan to attend and will definitely look for both Rudy Wiebe and Rhoda Janzen. Calvin does a great writer's conference.

  25. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Larry,Thanks for offering this comment–and a perspective I had not thought of before. Memoirist's family members are “human subjects”–in the language of your field. Wow, if writers had to meet the criteria ethics committees now require, that would be a high bar indeed!

  26. shirleyhs says:

    Found a great NYTimes article about the writer and other people. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/24/books/writers

  27. gucci bag says:

    And may she turn a forgiving but clear-eyed focus on her true antagonist, herself.

  28. amyjanzen says:

    I am “Staci” in the book. I am most definitely not proud of the way I am portrayed in this memoir. The verbatim conversations between family members either did not happen at all or happened in a very different “unfunny” context. To be perfectly honest, none of us are that interesting or funny. Rhoda's disdain for me, as well as our sister-in-law “Deena” is obvious and hurtful. When we welcomed Rhoda home with open arms and hearts we had no idea she was using us as fodder for a book deal. Rhoda's attempts to portray us as a backwards uneducated farm family are laughable. I have received numerous calls and notes from friends asking if Rhoda has in fact, ever actually met me. So–take this book with a huge grain of salt.

  29. amyjanzen says:

    I am “Staci” in the book. I am most definitely not proud of the way I am portrayed in this memoir. The verbatim conversations between family members either did not happen at all or happened in a very different “unfunny” context. To be perfectly honest, none of us are that interesting or funny. Rhoda's disdain for me, as well as our sister-in-law “Deena” is obvious and hurtful. When we welcomed Rhoda home with open arms and hearts we had no idea she was using us as fodder for a book deal. Rhoda's attempts to portray us as a backwards uneducated farm family are laughable. I have received numerous calls and notes from friends asking if Rhoda has in fact, ever actually met me. So–take this book with a huge grain of salt.

  30. shirleyhs says:

    “Staci,” thanks for finding this conversation and enriching it by your presence. You have confirmed my intuition that at least some family members might feel betrayed by their representations in the book. I hope that other comments in this blog space might be helpful to you. The issues of exaggeration for humor's sake, the differences between human subjects research and memoir, all these are worth pondering. And it was your presence in this book that brought them to our attention!For you, however, the subject is more than rhetorical. The rest of us can read the book with one big grain of salt, but for you, salt can make the wound more painful .I cannot advise you what to do with your feelings, but I feel led to share one story from my dissertation research. Writer Willa Cather wrote about her hometown of Red Cloud, NB, in many stories and novels. For a while people were angry with her and snubbed her when she went home for visit. Over time, however, some townspeople warmed up again and chose to claim themselves as part of her story. A strong writer will keep getting better, and the characters in their lives and in their stories play a role in their growth. [Now, of course, Willa Cather tours constitute one of the chief industries of the town–though that is not the moral of my story.] I have no idea whether your sister-in-law will become a writer of Cather's stature, but I believe she could. You can help her by both being honest with her about your feelings and by continuing to support her.You welcomed Rhoda with open arms when you thought she needed your help. Do you have the strength to keep those arms open by forgiving her for hurting you? I hope you can, for your sake as much or more than for hers. You have it within your power to go much deeper into the meaning of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress than the author understood herself at the time she wrote it. Publication does not need to end the story of a memoir. I had a feeling when I read the book that the story was only beginning. Writers have chosen a destiny that forces them to do their growing up in public, says Julia Kasdorf in the preface of her recently re-issued the body and the book. Part of growing up in the memoir genre is thinking long and hard about the real people whose stories become inextricably linked with your own in print. If writers care too much about this, they never take up the pen. If they care too little, they risk offense they do not intend. One repayment an author can make for that pain is learning the lesson for the next book–and making that one even better than the first.

  31. shirleyhs says:

    “Staci,” thanks for finding this conversation and enriching it by your presence. You have confirmed my intuition that at least some family members might feel betrayed by their representations in the book. I hope that other comments in this blog space might be helpful to you. The issues of exaggeration for humor's sake, the differences between human subjects research and memoir, all these are worth pondering. And it was your presence in this book that brought them to our attention!For you, however, the subject is more than rhetorical. The rest of us can read the book with one big grain of salt, but for you, salt can make the wound more painful .I cannot advise you what to do with your feelings, but I feel led to share one story from my dissertation research. Writer Willa Cather wrote about her hometown of Red Cloud, NB, in many stories and novels. For a while people were angry with her and snubbed her when she went home for visit. Over time, however, some townspeople warmed up again and chose to claim themselves as part of her story. A strong writer will keep getting better, and the characters in their lives and in their stories play a role in their growth. [Now, of course, Willa Cather tours constitute one of the chief industries of the town–though that is not the moral of my story.] I have no idea whether your sister-in-law will become a writer of Cather's stature, but I believe she could. You can help her by both being honest with her about your feelings and by continuing to support her.You welcomed Rhoda with open arms when you thought she needed your help. Do you have the strength to keep those arms open by forgiving her for hurting you? I hope you can, for your sake as much or more than for hers. You have it within your power to go much deeper into the meaning of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress than the author understood herself at the time she wrote it. Publication does not need to end the story of a memoir. I had a feeling when I read the book that the story was only beginning. Writers have chosen a destiny that forces them to do their growing up in public, says Julia Kasdorf in the preface of her recently re-issued the body and the book. Part of growing up in the memoir genre is thinking long and hard about the real people whose stories become inextricably linked with your own in print. If writers care too much about this, they never take up the pen. If they care too little, they risk offense they do not intend. One repayment an author can make for that pain is learning the lesson for the next book–and making that one even better than the first.

  32. Penny Naugle says:

    I read the book and these comments with great interest. I am officially a non-Menno who has been involved in Mennonite education for nearly all of my professional career and sometimes find myself more Menno than those around me. I read Black Dress and then immediately read Katie Funk Wiebe's You Never Gave Me a Name. It provides an interesting contrast re: the development of strong womanhood in the context of Mennonite culture. In reference to an earlier thought, just as Garrison Keillor does with small town Lutheran's, there is a tendency to ascribe characteristics to one's own experiences that are common to many, if not most, small town experiences. As the wife of a Presbyterian pastor who as served many small churches, I can attest to the commonality.

  33. shirleyhs says:

    Welcome to the conversation, Penny. Yes, I think you are right in pointing out the larger contexts for many ideas Mennos tend to think of as Mennonite. For example, some characteristics relate to coming from small towns or from German culture or from patriarchal cultures.For a writer wanting to connect with a broad readership this is a good thing. Many people can identify with the descriptions. Readers who are not Mennonite, however, can feel put off by any claims either stated or implied or inferred to uniqueness–if they themselves have experienced similar experiences or grew up with similar values in their homes of origin. The trick is to describe the particular without making it sound unique. Just the label “Mennonite” alone can have this implied unique effect. One reviewer of this book on Amazon complained that she was curious about Mennonite life but did not think that not being allowed to wear jeans was different enough to qualify for what she thought Mennonites stood for. I'd love to know what you mean by being more Mennonite than the folks who grew up Mennonite around you.I have also read Katie Funk Wiebe's memoir as well as Rudy Wiebe's and Connie Braun's, which I have just reviewed for MQR. These four together create quite a mosaic of Russian Mennonite experience!

  34. jdp says:

    Those who are miffed by the fact that Janzen doesn't explicitly state that she comes from a mere branch of the Menno tree should try to understand how a writer from a background like ours has huge shoes to fill in a mere 50,000-100,000 words. There is no way one writer can explain to the non-Mennonite world why we care about which group we come from and what our particular beliefs are–and keep the attention of anyone who isn't Mennonite. I've been working on a novel about a Russian Mennonite family, and at first I tried to be very particular about what kind of Mennonite did or experienced what. However, one of my mentors at Sarah Lawrence College once said I needed to get to the spirit of the Mennonite faith, not to be bogged down in facts. So, I've taken a bit of Swiss Mennonite and mixed it with a bit of Russian Mennonite and so forth. Is it historically accurate? No. But I hope that it has the essence of truth.

  35. jdp says:

    Writers rarely–if ever–have control over what lands on the cover. I once spoke with an author who was furious about the cover designed for her latest book, but she couldn't do anything about it. I noticed the head covering immediately when I first saw the cover of MILBD, since I'm of Russian Mennonite heritage and all my grandparents wore busty gowns and pompadours. My guess is the designers knew a dowdy head covering juxtaposed with a flirty skirt and legs would sell more copies. People do judge a book by its cover, unfortunately. Maybe Janzen (or her editor) was able to push the change.I totally agree with the issue of trust in a memoir. However, I think a memoir cannot be trusted the way a biography is trusted, because it is based on memory rather than research. I learned in an oral history class about how people's memories are often flexible and untrustworthy. We did our own oral history project and it was interesting how many different versions of the same stories came out. Of course, the debate is whether people who write memoirs should pay more attention to research or not. I guess we may never know if she glossed over the MB vs MC/GC difference because she wanted to for various reasons or because she didn't consider the differences. I grew up MB, and I didn't realize the major differences until I attended Eastern Mennonite University. I disagree with some of her points in the primer as an ex-MB. The avoidance of higher education, for one. My great-grandfather helped erect the first building for Tabor College in 1908 (where Rudy Wiebe and Jean Janzen both studied), and various relatives have held several roles in that small, liberal arts college. However, I've heard that the California MBs are somewhat more conservative than Midwestern MBs, so I'm assuming that may have something to do with it.

  36. shirleyhs says:

    Welcome, JDP,You make a valid point about audience and level of detail required to help them understand. Your mentor was right, I think, in encouraging you not to let concern for historical accuracy bog your novel down.With a novel, especially, the reader expects the historical/theological/even cultural info (exposition–“telling, not showing”) to be subordinated to “showing”–plot, theme, character. With a memoir, one enters more complex territory. Trusting the author's voice, if not every fact, is a necessity. In Janzen's book, I saw my own Mennonite community and values sometimes and sometimes did not. I recognized that I was not the target audience for the book and tried to give the author grace for that–as well as recognized that both “Russian” Mennonites and “Swiss Mennonites” have their own stories to tell. There were two things, however, I mention as actual critiques, and I stand by these: the Amish covering did not belong on the cover, and if the author is going to name the denomination in capital letters, as she does in reference to her father's position of “pope,” she should not drop the word “Brethren” out of it. I noticed that the new paperback copy of the book jacket uses an old-fashioned hat more like the ones depicted in some of the Janzen family photos on-line, so that removes one of my points. May all the stories be told! All best in writing your own.

  37. jdp says:

    Writers rarely–if ever–have control over what lands on the cover. I once spoke with an author who was furious about the cover designed for her latest book, but she couldn't do anything about it. I noticed the head covering immediately when I first saw the cover of MILBD, since I'm of Russian Mennonite heritage and all my grandparents wore busty gowns and pompadours. My guess is the designers knew a dowdy head covering juxtaposed with a flirty skirt and legs would sell more copies. People do judge a book by its cover, unfortunately. Maybe Janzen (or her editor) was able to push the change.I totally agree with the issue of trust in a memoir. However, I think a memoir cannot be trusted the way a biography is trusted, because it is based on memory rather than research. I learned in an oral history class about how people's memories are often flexible and untrustworthy. We did our own oral history project and it was interesting how many different versions of the same stories came out. Of course, the debate is whether people who write memoirs should pay more attention to research or not. I guess we may never know if she glossed over the MB vs MC/GC difference because she wanted to for various reasons or because she didn't consider the differences. I grew up MB, and I didn't realize the major differences until I attended Eastern Mennonite University. I disagree with some of her points in the primer as an ex-MB. The avoidance of higher education, for one. My great-grandfather helped erect the first building for Tabor College in 1908 (where Rudy Wiebe and Jean Janzen both studied), and various relatives have held several roles in that small, liberal arts college. However, I've heard that the California MBs are somewhat more conservative than Midwestern MBs, so I'm assuming that may have something to do with it.

  38. Melanie Springer Mock says:

    Excellent review. (I was forwarded your blog link by a Mennonite friend in higher education, and am so grateful, since I've been thinking about Janzen's book in much the same terms. And, also, am writing a feminist critique of the “bonnet-ripper” fad, so appreciated the allusion to that phenomena in your review, too.) I loved Janzen's book, for the most part, and am actually envious that she wrote about Mennonitism with so much wit, and is receiving so much good press–though I know, as a good Mennonite woman, I shouldn't feel so much envy. Much like the head covering on the book's cover, though, I felt some of the other Mennonite references to be gratuitous–a way to make Mennonites seem exotic, in turn making Janzen's book more marketable. Indeed, the entire appendix felt superfluous, as if the book needed to up its Mennonite satire quotient. I also felt she unfairly lampooned what is an important component in my Mennonite identity–that is, pacifism (but I imagine we all have our sacred cows!)I was troubled by the conflation of MB with all other branches of Mennonites, though understand the artistic necessity of doing so. However, I think the conflation reinforces some stereotypes about Mennonites that I've always tried to combat–even that Mennonite women always wear frumpy dresses with stockings and black tennis shoes. The problematic portrayal of family is indeed intriguing, as well; it was interesting to read her SIL's comments here on your blog. In fact, I teach a memoir course, and wonder if I can use this review–and the comments–as a point of discussion for my class this semester? My students have talked in abstract terms about what it must feel like to have an unflattering portrayal of a family member in a memoir, but this provides some real evidence for the potential liability of writing about those with whom we are in relationship.Excellent blog–I'm glad my friend led me to it!

  39. Marlin Jeschke says:

    I happen to be acquainted with Rhoda Janzen’s father. I was in his home for supper while on a teaching stint at the seminary in Fresno in 1995. He also hails from Saskatchewan. True, in his church leadership roles he has felt the pressure to remain theologically conservative. But Rhoda Janzen’s home was not itself in any way abusive as her husband was whom she married in graduate school. In my reading Janzen feels some compulsion to ridicule the Mennonite community of her youth as an oblique way of blaming it for her unhappy marriage, and she still seems to have no inclination to return to what she portrays as the hopelessly conventional life of the rest of her family back in Fresno.Janzen has ambivalent feelings about her religious roots. Fortunately, her spoofing doesn’t degenerate into mean attack. Behind the humor lies a profound appreciation for the integrity and goodwill she recognizes in the church community of her origin. In her return home for recovery after the divorce and serious car accident she finds deep compassion and forgiveness, perhaps not expecting it. In her memoir as a whole the spoofs of her heritage are at the beginning of the book, whereas toward the end of the book she leaves that behind and waxes quite philosophical. In fact, I think it is fair to assess her conclusion as a decision to embrace the values she was brought up with, even though she may not formally feel comfortable with rejoining a Mennonite congregation. As for us, reading her book will do us no harm. We can enjoy the humor, dismiss the inaccuracies Janzen offers about Mennonites, and critique our tradition to keep it one worthy of welcoming people such as Rhoda Janzen, who needed such a community for recovery of body and spirit after encountering tribulations for which she may or may not have been to blame.

  40. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Melanie, welcome to 100memoirs.com. I really appreciate your comments. You are more than welcome to use this blog in your class. You and your class might be interested to know that this post has attracted more comments and hits than any I have put up so far. Take that as a testament to Rhoda Janzen and the intense interest readers have in her great memoir. One request: please send me a syllabus for your class, which, if you like, I would be happy to post. I'd love other professors to see it and perhaps share their own. Also, I hope you have found the reviews of books about memoir, especially the new one by Ben Yagoda. Tags and the search function will help you locate many resources.Since you are gracious enough to admit to a little jealousy, I will join you . . . and we won't be alone. Just ask agents and editors how many people (doctors, architects, journalists,etc.) come up to them at parties and tell them about the bestseller they have locked up inside!Along with you, I also envy Rhoda Janzen's wit–in the same way I envy Myrl Streep's acting–as a form of admiration for gifts greater than my own. That kind of envy should keep both of us from needing to confess in front of the congregation. :-)On the family issue. I just read Mary Karr's Lit and would offer that book as a model for how to deal with family members. She tells the story of her mother and sister's reactions to her first memoir draft in her third memoir draft. What a valuable part of the story this is, because it shows that devastating things about others can be shared–and that loved ones will allow it–if they feel honored by the process and trust the writer's truth. Jeanette Walls, in The Glass Castle, quotes her mother as saying something like “tell the truth”–sorry that I don't have the book in front of me–which allows the reader to know that mother at least knows about the book and grants her daughter permission to share what she remembers. This kind of respect for the other “subjects” in one's life is part of what Karr means, I think, by becoming the antagonist as well as the protagonist of one's own story. To me that means, in part, that the author has taken seriously the viewpoints and feelings of others without negating or silencing her own voice. She has also wrestled with both the angels and demons of her nature. Even a comic memoir can show us this.Rhoda Janzen has wrestled and likely will wrestle more in the next book. I look forward to reading it. And I envy you and your students the chance to have great discussions about memoir for a whole semester!

  41. shirleyhs says:

    Marlin, thanks for joining the conversation and adding your own connections to the character of “Si” Janzen. Your reading of the book coincides with my own interpretation. I love this line from you: “We can enjoy the humor, dismiss the inaccuracies Janzen offers about Mennonites, and critique our tradition to keep it one worthy of welcoming people such as Rhoda Janzen.” Amen.

  42. pennynaugle says:

    Responding to your interest in my comment about sometimes being more Mennonite than the Mennonites around me. I find in the context where I am that some are in a stage of opening and becoming more inclusive. There are times when some Mennonite distinctives may be glossed over and those distinctives may be the very things that attract me to this Christian expression. My context is a school that originally served mainly the Mennonite community but now has a much more diverse student body. Change has its challenges.I also find that there is a difference being on the faculty of a Mennonite college and being an administrator and colleague and friend in a different part of the country.

  43. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Penny. Your story is a familiar one to me. Have you ever heard of Hansen's Law? It has to do with generations, but I think it could be applied to religious identities also: “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember”.

  44. shirleyhs says:

    Amy, and others interested in the issue of family and friends. Here's an article that explains how Mary Karr informed the people who appear in The Liar's Club.

  45. shirleyhs says:

    Forgot the link: Here it is from Slate Magazine: http://www.slate.com/id/2162744/

  46. Pingback: Mary Karr’s Lit: A Monumental Achievement | 100 Memoirs

  47. Melanie Springer Mock says:

    I'd love to share my memoir class syllabus with you, Dr. Showalter. I tried to hunt down your email address, but couldn't find it. How best to get that to you? Had my first class this morning, and for the first time in 10 years, there were more than just two or three men in the class (last year, there were only women; this year, half the class is male). I'm curious about this change in the course population, and how that might shift the dynamics of the class!

  48. Melanie Springer Mock says:

    I'd love to share my memoir class syllabus with you, Dr. Showalter. I tried to hunt down your email address, but couldn't find it. How best to get that to you? Had my first class this morning, and for the first time in 10 years, there were more than just two or three men in the class (last year, there were only women; this year, half the class is male). I'm curious about this change in the course population, and how that might shift the dynamics of the class!

  49. Ellen says:

    Sorry. Inane, poorly written, unfunny and not worth the time it took to read. Hopefully, Oprah will pick up on it and give Janzen the James Frey treatment she deserves. Get real. If you were raised MC (which I think she was trying to imply) your dad didn't wear shorts. There's a Mennonite pope? And why not call it “Mennonite BRETHREN in a Little Black Dress?” Just my opinion.

  50. Ellen says:

    Sorry. Inane, poorly written, unfunny and not worth the time it took to read. Hopefully, Oprah will pick up on it and give Janzen the James Frey treatment she deserves. Get real. If you were raised MC (which I think she was trying to imply) your dad didn't wear shorts. There's a Mennonite pope? And why not call it “Mennonite BRETHREN in a Little Black Dress?” Just my opinion.

  51. Pingback: Want to Create Your Own Memoir Course? Here’s a Syllabus to Get You Started | 100 Memoirs

  52. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Ellen, welcome to the conversation. Thanks for your honest opinion of the book. I know other people, including one person in my own book club, who responded this strongly and negatively, calling the book “vulgar”–and she is not Mennonite.You can find some reviews on Amazon.com that match up with your opinion also. Thank goodness we don't all have identical taste. One of the marks of a good book is that it produces strong feelings and responses–both positive and negative.Thanks so much for stopping by. And even more for adding your comment.

  53. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Ellen, welcome to the conversation. Thanks for your honest opinion of the book. I know other people, including one person in my own book club, who responded this strongly and negatively, calling the book “vulgar”–and she is not Mennonite.You can find some reviews on Amazon.com that match up with your opinion also. Thank goodness we don't all have identical taste. One of the marks of a good book is that it produces strong feelings and responses–both positive and negative.Thanks so much for stopping by. And even more for adding your comment.

  54. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for the syllabus, now received. I will post it as a separate post all its own. Deeply grateful to you.

  55. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for the syllabus, now received. I will post it as a separate post all its own. Deeply grateful to you.

  56. jjanzen says:

    Hello Shirley,I would like to add my two cents to your review and the comments it generated. I've been coming back to this site to hear people's thoughts regarding this memoir mainly because I am Rhoda's brother. When I finished reading the book I had to admit that I had a variety of feelings, a few of which are positive. Rhoda is a gifted writer and always has had a keen intellect which she can convey with extreme zeal. Her poetry as well as this book drip resonance and articulate the strength of her mind and pen. Many of the reviews descriptively nail her down: pithy, snarky, bitchy, poetic, and even philosophical. I am proud of her accomplishments, BUT I have others feelings as well. I feel frustrated about her portrayal of the family. Rhoda’s recollections are not factual and her perspective of reality has a lot of artistic license. I sometimes feel anger at the condescension that is woven throughout the book. Her derision of ‘Staci’ and ‘Denna’ is palpable and I just don’t understand why she feels so negative against family members. ‘Staci’ has always tried to be kind and compassionate to Rhoda, (that is her nature) and Rhoda mocked ‘Staci’ in the book and in various interviews. The impact on the family has not been good. ‘Staci’ has already mentioned her hurt feelings on a previous posted comment. My father briefly pulled back from public engagements, my wife feels a sense of mistrust, my mother cries because of the hurt family feelings. Forgiveness is a process and it has begun in the family, but reconciliation is not there…yet. I understand that Rhoda is going through a self-reflection/self-actualization process by writing this book, but, as Rhoda states in her book “… it is much harder to show compassion and understanding when we are the ones being hurt directly, when the wrecking ball of someone else’s misery takes us down, too.”I sometimes feel a great disappointment as well when she describes Mennonite Brethren only in terms of a tradition. Rhoda had a wonderful opportunity to share insight, albeit a skewed perspective, to enlighten others about the Mennonite Brethren. Even I know that Mennonite Brethren is not just a culture but a community of believers worshipping from a shared faith. My biggest feeling however is that of sadness. I guess I never truly knew my sister or the angst of her life. I wish that she would not have distanced herself from me and the rest of the family. I feel sad that my recollections of family experiences, which partially shaped me into who I am today, had such a detrimental effect on Rhoda. I feel sad that Rhoda has had such a hard life without truly knowing herself.Memoirs are a tricky little business. I’ve enjoyed the comments on this blog by Melanie Springer Mock and jdp regarding memoirs. I’ve been discussing the virtues and negative aspects of memoirs (namely Rhoda’s) via e-mail with J. Daniel Hess. Dan told me that he is speaking in late January at the 10th biennial meeting of Mennonite Arts Weekend in Cincinnati on, yes, you guessed it, memoirs. Dan informed that one of the problems with memoirs is motivation. Motive makes a difference, especially to the characters that are woven into the story. This is one area that can either build trust or tear it down. Unfortunately for me, I don’t know Rhoda’s motives and if we ever have a sit down heart-to-heart dialogue I don’t know if it will change things. My mother told me other day that in Proverbs (at least she thinks it’s in Proverbs) there are four things that can never be taken back: 1. The stone, after being shot; 2. The word, after being pronounced; 3. The occasion, after being lost; 4.The time, after it’s gone. My father suggested a fifth thing…the written word.

  57. jdp says:

    It's amazing that you can grow up alongside a sibling and have had a completely different experience. Children have as much an inner life as adults, only they are looking at it through the eyes of a child without the experience and outlets of an adult. Someone told me to look at the experience of a child this way: Imagine strangers in green grab you, tie you down, and put a mask on your face that smells strange and makes you feel as if you are floating away from the world. Then you wake up and are in pain and you don't know why this has happened to you. To an adult, this child has just had an appendectomy, to a child it is a horrific event. Even if they never talk about it to anyone in their family, it may color everything in their childhood from then on. Their experience has just veered away from the experiences of their siblings forever. I am only now learning about my siblings' childhoods–it sometimes amazes me that we grew up in the same house! If we each wrote a memoir today, that difference would more than likely become even more apparent–and possibly hurtful.That is why a memoir is a tricky piece of work, something few readers really understand–not because they are bad readers, but because in general people think that when something is labeled a memoir, biography, etc., it is True and has given a window into the “real” world of Mennonites or Fill-in-the-Blank. The problem is, whether the author means to tell the Truth or not, his or her Truth may not agree with the Truths of others that spent huge chunks of their lives with the author.I often wonder at this need for the reading public to read non-fiction over fiction. When I was in grad school, agents on campus said, rather bluntly, that memoirs are easier to sell than fiction, since that is what a consumer wants to read. My obviously biased opinion (as a writer of fiction) is because, just like reality TV, a memoir fills an imagined void of some kind. We are all surrounded by fake-ness of one kind or another: perfect model bodies, genius children created by Baby Einstein, plasma TVs and plastic toys for everyone. We have gotten the notion that a memoir is something real, something beyond our hum-drum lives. We have gotten the idea that fiction cannot be Truth in another form. One of my all-time favorite memoirs is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. It follows the year after her husband's sudden death as they were sitting down to dinner. I found myself trusting her every word. Why? Because it is a map to her inner self. There is little dialogue, so I felt more trust, because she is talking about her own responses, rather than how others responded to her. I learned later that her daughter died as she was finishing the book, even though there is no mention of that devastating fact. But somehow I still trust her account. Why? Because the emotions she had were still the same, and whether or not she was even telling the Truth on that count didn't matter because it spoke to me about the nature of grief.Perhaps your sister's memoir speaks to others who know nothing about Mennonites or the Janzen family about dealing with returning home and finding it different than expected. This does not make it any easier for you. As Shirley said in an earlier post, “The rest of us can read the book with one big grain of salt, but for you, salt can make the wound more painful.”

  58. shirleyhs says:

    jjanzen,Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and offering yet another perspective, one that deserves special consideration–a brother's. I can tell that you are striving to understand even as you express sadness and disappointment.I searched online to find the source of the “proverb” and discovered this one, probably what your mother was remembering: “Four things come not back: the spoken word; the spent arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.”–Omar ibn al-Halif.The issue of motive that you and Dan Hess are discussing is something every memoir writer should contend with. Once probed, however, this subject seldom ends, because motives are often mixed, unconscious, and evolving. Only the author herself can say what motivated her, and she may not understand the full motive herself. If she has said she did not intend hurt and harm, try your best to believe her. As Larry pointed out earlier, lack of intent does not retract the barb of the “spoken word,” but believing in the potential for good and for growth is where the hope lies if you want eventual reconciliation.The proverb your mother quoted and something Marlin Jeschke said above lead me to ask you a question. Your sister cannot take back her spoken or written words. The arrow of this book is spent and cannot be returned to innocence. But what about the opportunity? Do you have one in this situation?Marlin Jeschke takes comfort that the Mennonite (Brethren) community nurtured a talent as great as Rhoda's. Many readers, though not all, actually see this book as a testimony to the strength of Mennonite community. You see that testimony as being about the culture rather than the beliefs.If you yearn for those beliefs to be made manifest, JJanzen, you have it within your own hands to do so.Television court tv and reality shows fill us with images of how to settle scores in this culture. Mennonites, at least “old Mennonites,” in the time I was growing up, were forbidden to sue anyone. And if there was a rift in the family relations, the parties not in accord could not take communion. I remember my grandfather confessing in church that he had harbored ill will against his brother after the settlement of their father's estate. I have no idea who had the just cause, but I'll tell you what I do remember–my grandfather, who seemed to me like the master of the universe, humbling himself before God and the congregation in order to make peace with his brother.My question is the simple one that has guided Mennonite people at their best through almost 500 years: what would Jesus do?I hesitate to ask this question, and I can never presume to tell you how to answer it. All I know is that the stories–the memoirs, if you will–that have shaped me and called me are the stories of love that has gone the second and third and fourth mile.God bless you and all members of your family. Thank you again for deepening the hearts, minds, and spirits of all who read these words.

  59. shirleyhs says:

    JDP, so good to have your wise words back again. I had not read them when I replied to JJanzen myself, but I see we went down some similar pathways.I suppose you know that James Frey first tried to sell his mss to publishers as a novel, with no success. So you have put your finger on something in our culture that is generating the craze for “real” and “true” stories while setting up incentives to shade the very truth we are seeking. The genre will have to deal with this fact, and could, in the end, self-destruct. So long as there are economic incentives that reward memoir over fiction, there will be challenges to the very definition of the genre. Augustin Burroughs (or his publisher?) has been sued, I believe, and perhaps David Sedaris also.Some famous writer said that if you really want to tell the truth, write fiction. Others actually blame fiction writers (and MFA programs and postmodernism) for stripping the novel of plot and character and making it inaccessible to the general public. Readers who want these things now go to the memoir section. Over simplification, I know. But what do you think?I too love The Year of Magical Thinking and reviewed it here: http://www.100memoirs.com/2009/08/the-year-of-m…Have you read Rudy Wiebe's prize-winning memoir Of this Earth? http://www.amazon.com/This-Earth-Mennonite-Boyh…Wiebe gets around the Truth issue in memoir by “showing the work”–in Julia Kasdorf's phrase–and telling us when he is constructing memory from fragments and when he does not remember. I actually found this scrupulousness a little tedious. But it sure helps with the problem we are dealing with here–how to tell one's own story without trampling on the stories of others. Mary Karr does this beautifully also. We trust her voice completely because she has dug deep, knowing that her own memory is just one source of truth.I just completed a review of Connie Braun's The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia: A Mennonite Memoir. She also “showed the work” of reconstruction.Novelists have lots of hard writing work to do, but they don't have to “show the work” in the same way. Many blessings as you create imaginary worlds with potential to be “truer” than the ones our poor human memories generate.ShirleyP.S., I am also reading Daniel Gilbert' Stumbling Upon Happiness, which explains why our memories are so biased. There could come a day when the latest findings in social science challenge the veracity of some of the thousands of memoirs currently rolling off the presses. Larry's point above hints at what some of the issues might be. The very best memoirists, however, do not fall into the trap of presenting their own truth as Truth.

  60. jjanzen says:

    Interesting thoughts, thank you jdp, for replying to my posted comment. I have to remark on a few items that you wrote about. You stated that it is amazing that siblings can grow up with completely different experiences. I think that siblings grow up with many shared experiences, but have a completely different perspective on those experiences. I view the world most of the time with a scientific bent. When I look at a rainbow I know that photons of light moving in waves are refracted within water droplets and that these photons enter my eyes at such an angle so that only I can ‘see’ this rainbow…if you were standing right next to me, your angle for light to enter your eyes is different from mine, hence you ‘see’ a different rainbow. Same experience, different perspective. This is also why your analogy of the difference between a child’s and adult’s experience doesn’t hold water for me… yes the child doesn’t have the prior knowledge to comprehend a surgical procedure and can believe (perspective) it to be a horrific experience, but both the adult and child can talk about that experience and give it relevance. The experience starts to have commonality points so that when others hear the adult and child talking they can say “That conversation is about an appendectomy.” It is hard to imagine however, if someone comes along and discusses with others that they too had the same experience, yet their perspective of that event leads the individual to believe it is a walk on the moon. I understand your point about events that can forever color (the rainbow perspective) peoples lives, but these events shouldn’t make a concept like a family trip into a gruesome outing that forevermore taints one’s perceptions of humanity and religion. What I’m trying to get at here is your idea that each of us has a Truth and how we relate with that Truth is what matters. You stated, “The problem is, whether the author means to tell the Truth or not, his or her Truth may not agree with the Truths of others that spent huge chunks of their lives with the author.” I would ask you this in response to your statement…What do you do when most people have a Truth that makes them see the color blue, yet one individual’s Truth sees it orange?I found your statements about the differences between fiction and non-fiction fascinating. You stated that non-fiction, like memoirs fill an imagined void and offer up a “fakeness” of our society. I don’t think it’s fakeness that you observe. I think it’s a rippled reflection of cultural stories. I believe in the power of personal writing and of non-fiction. Personal stories were integral for me when I was teaching. Memoirs offer up an intimate account of a person’s cultural perspective in a first person voice, which allows the audience to be drawn in, but I believe it is even more than that. My take on it is mainly found in cultural proficiency and why we learn. Humans learn more about themselves by comparing and contrasting their own prior knowledge with other people’s stories. Cultural mores and even societal norms are passed along through these personal stories. Personal writing for me then is a way for people to not only connect with other people, but with values, knowledge and self. This does not diminish fiction however, I absolutely agree with your statement “We have gotten the idea that fiction cannot be Truth in another form.” Many societal morals are derived from fiction…Kudos to you for surfacing this idea.

  61. jjanzen says:

    Shirley, thank you for your responseI didn’t know where the proverb of things you can’t take back came from. I will let my mother know it’s not biblical in origin (She will be chagrined…lol)I read and re-read your comments and I hear your compassion and understanding in your words. I also recognize that you are prodding me (ever so gently) into following what the Christian faith dictates – love, forgiveness and reconciliation. I think I needed to hear that from you. I will try to make this opportunity into a story that will go that third or fourth mile. Thanks!

  62. shirleyhs says:

    Tell your mother not to worry! She has a good ear for a good quote and remembered it at an appropos time. Furthermore, there are thousands of people who have just met her in this book, and they want to give her a ton of grace. :-)Blessings to you for reading not only the electronic words but the space between the words. There is joy in the wideness of God's mercy.

  63. jdp says:

    I'm not an expert on oral history and memory by any stretch of the imagination, but during my oral history course in grad school I was exposed to a plethora of material on the subject. One of the ideas that has stood out to me (probably because I am a writer) over the years is that every time someone tells a story, the story changes no matter if that story is retold within a few days or several years. There are several theories why this happens, one of which is a teller can be influenced by something they've seen, experienced or read between the tellings. Another is the fact that the memory may have been considered in a different light between tellings. (Re your sister's memoir–maybe she saw certain situations from her past in one way when she was in the writing/editing process because she was at a particular stage in her life; maybe if asked about them today she would remember them differently because she is at a different place.) And this is just one person we're talking about here. If one person cannot be depended on, how can you expect more than one participant in a scene to have the exact same memory? You asked “What do you do when most people have a Truth that makes them see the color blue, yet one individual’s Truth sees it orange?”I don't have a solid answer for that, beyond talking to the person who sees orange to get an understanding of why that person sees that color while you and possibly many others see a different one. I think by the end of that discussion you still won't see orange, but maybe your shade of blue might be a bit different (and hopefully the orange-holder will have had the same experience).

  64. jdp says:

    I just read my above comment and saw how I used “you” in a rather confrontational manner! I mean the “you” as in a more general “we” way. That's why the pen, or in this case, a chat can be a dangerous thing. I believe that has been a common thread in this whole discussion.

  65. jdp says:

    I've heard that argument (re the way MFA programs and postmodernism have stripped the novel of plot and character) before, and I can only say it depends on the program, which I suppose goes for any academic study. (If you get a bunch of Nihilists teaching in one program you can expect Nihilist graduates. :)) Every one of my workshops at Sarah Lawrence had one thing in common–we all demanded plot and character from each story we read. After graduation I took a post-MFA workshop, and once again, we demanded each story to have clear plot and characterization. So, I'd say that these things are alive and well in the world of fiction. Perhaps postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc. have changed the face of fiction in how a story is told or who is telling the story (I always think of Wide Sargasso Sea as an excellent example). But I still say that any writer worth her salt wants to tell a good story. The trick is to have a message or comment on society woven within the story. That ability is the divide between a great writer and a so-so writer.I think some people may be disdainful of fiction simply because they are afraid of it. There is a stereotype of the snobby writer who looks down on anyone who doesn't “get” their work. Once in awhile I've come upon an author that might fit into that mold, unfortunately. I feel that Jonathan Franzen's behavior with Oprah is a good example of that snobbishness. I'll have to add those other memoirs to my reading list–maybe I'll convince my book group to pick one for next month.

  66. jdp says:

    I've heard that argument (re the way MFA programs and postmodernism have stripped the novel of plot and character) before, and I can only say it depends on the program, which I suppose goes for any academic study. (If you get a bunch of Nihilists teaching in one program you can expect Nihilist graduates. :)) Every one of my workshops at Sarah Lawrence had one thing in common–we all demanded plot and character from each story we read. After graduation I took a post-MFA workshop, and once again, we demanded each story to have clear plot and characterization. So, I'd say that these things are alive and well in the world of fiction. Perhaps postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc. have changed the face of fiction in how a story is told or who is telling the story (I always think of Wide Sargasso Sea as an excellent example). But I still say that any writer worth her salt wants to tell a good story. The trick is to have a message or comment on society woven within the story. That ability is the divide between a great writer and a so-so writer.I think some people may be disdainful of fiction simply because they are afraid of it. There is a stereotype of the snobby writer who looks down on anyone who doesn't “get” their work. Once in awhile I've come upon an author that might fit into that mold, unfortunately. I feel that Jonathan Franzen's behavior with Oprah is a good example of that snobbishness. I'll have to add those other memoirs to my reading list–maybe I'll convince my book group to pick one for next month.

  67. shirleyhs says:

    One of the readers of this blog sent me a post from a memoirist who confronted the many faces of the truth when he wrote about his college years at Hampshire College in the late 80's–but as he did so in the age of Facebook.See http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/

  68. shirleyhs says:

    One of the readers of this blog sent me a post from a memoirist who confronted the many faces of the truth when he wrote about his college years at Hampshire College in the late 80's–but as he did so in the age of Facebook.See http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/

  69. shirleyhs says:

    Good to hear that not all MFA programs can be tarred with the anti-narrative brush. The more I think about these issues, the more I respect the novelist and the more critical I will be of memoir, especially my own, in the future.

  70. shirleyhs says:

    Good to hear that not all MFA programs can be tarred with the anti-narrative brush. The more I think about these issues, the more I respect the novelist and the more critical I will be of memoir, especially my own, in the future.

  71. shirleyhs says:

    Here is an article about why some memoirs would be better as novels: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/

  72. shirleyhs says:

    Here is an article about why some memoirs would be better as novels: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/

  73. Claire M. Johnso says:

    Goodness, Shirley, I honestly don't know what I could possibly offer to this intelligent and heartfelt series of responses. Being an outsider regarding the ins and outs of Mennonite culture, I took everything that she wrote absolutely at face value. It's fascinating to read the responses from other Mennonites. I think that her family's response is completely understandable, and while I didn't push this in my review, I did privately wonder how her brothers would react to being labeled virtual strangers and certainly the SILs come off very badly. I got the sense that she didn't properly address her anger with the culture (which I sense is lurking around the edges), so chose to use these family members as scapegoats. Indeed, my own reading of the book (and if I were her editor I would have pushed this issue at the expense of the humor) is that I came away with such a profound sense of her love for her parents and sister that I never understood why she left. And given that her marriage seemed abusive at best–it wasn't until the last third that we realize exactly how abusive–the question of why she left (and married someone who is the antithesis of her upbringing–which, yes, is a very big clue) and why she came home is never adequately answered. Which is why I laughed like hell during the reading of the book, but came away dissatisfied. I might have learned a lot about her brand of Mennonite culture, but I didn't come away with much understanding of her relationship to that culture as an adult, and why she felt she needed to distance herself in order to realize selfhood. Her portrayal of her parents doesn't lead anyone to believe that they wouldn't have been supportive of anything she chose to do. As a reader I'm left with an incomplete picture, both of Mennonite culture and her relationship to it. This is a fascinating discussion. Thank you for linking me to it!

  74. Claire M. Johnso says:

    Goodness, Shirley, I honestly don't know what I could possibly offer to this intelligent and heartfelt series of responses. Being an outsider regarding the ins and outs of Mennonite culture, I took everything that she wrote absolutely at face value. It's fascinating to read the responses from other Mennonites. I think that her family's response is completely understandable, and while I didn't push this in my review, I did privately wonder how her brothers would react to being labeled virtual strangers and certainly the SILs come off very badly. I got the sense that she didn't properly address her anger with the culture (which I sense is lurking around the edges), so chose to use these family members as scapegoats. Indeed, my own reading of the book (and if I were her editor I would have pushed this issue at the expense of the humor) is that I came away with such a profound sense of her love for her parents and sister that I never understood why she left. And given that her marriage seemed abusive at best–it wasn't until the last third that we realize exactly how abusive–the question of why she left (and married someone who is the antithesis of her upbringing–which, yes, is a very big clue) and why she came home is never adequately answered. Which is why I laughed like hell during the reading of the book, but came away dissatisfied. I might have learned a lot about her brand of Mennonite culture, but I didn't come away with much understanding of her relationship to that culture as an adult, and why she felt she needed to distance herself in order to realize selfhood. Her portrayal of her parents doesn't lead anyone to believe that they wouldn't have been supportive of anything she chose to do. As a reader I'm left with an incomplete picture, both of Mennonite culture and her relationship to it. This is a fascinating discussion. Thank you for linking me to it!

  75. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Claire. Your own review might interest readers of this blog also. Here is the URL for readers on GoodReads; http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/78272726Your thoughts here made me wonder if you are a therapist. You seem experienced in understanding the motives and issues that lie under the surface. Memoir invites such speculation, and the best writers in this genre dive deeply into the kinds of questions you raise. I'm not sure how well the self-examination and religious culture-examination fit with the exaggeration of humor, but I'm guessing they can. Would love to see it happen in the next book.

  76. Shirley,You absolutely nailed it. This is exactly what I felt when I finished this book. Thank you for very eloquently summing it up. I too cringed at the treatment of her sister-in-law and the scenes with her brothers as well. Perhaps she's not planning on going home again? But, like you, I found the overall effort very worthwhile. I'm working on my own memoir and it's all very instructive. Thanks for all the great information on this site. It's a huge help.Best,Colleen Friesen

  77. jdp says:

    I just read this in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/201…A very interesting look into the history of the memoir. I also heard on NPR tonight that Louise Erdrich's novel, Shadow Tag, is loosely based on her rather ugly divorce–once again, fiction gets away with a lot more than a memoir!

  78. shirleyhs says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing!

  79. clifh says:

    It appears that many comments from those of M.C.USA background are perturbed that Janzen didn't use the “Brethren” word to describe her religious history. Is there anyone (who reads this) able to report on how members of the Mennonite Brethren Church feel about the missing word? Are they miffed? Or are they thankful at being misidentified as being simply Mennonite? Has Janzen's book been reviewed in any Mennonite Brethren publications?

  80. shirleyhs says:

    Great question. Would love to hear from MB's on this one. Thanks, Clif.

  81. jdp says:

    You've heard some of my views aired here about the book, so I won't repeat them here. However, I talked to my mother the other day (who is still an MB in Kansas), and though she has yet to read the book, she's heard a lot about it from others. From what I could gather, reactions are just as mixed among MBs as Menno USA members. Some thought it hilarious, some hated it (though the particular reasons did not come up), and some had conflicting emotions about it. As far as I know, MB publications have not reviewed it.In my mind, MBs aren't as, shall I say, border-conscious as Menno USA members. When I was growing up, I remember hearing people say MC or GC, etc., but it was never pushed that those groups were so different from each other. It was only when I went to Eastern Mennonite University that I realized the differences (and saw the facial reactions of people when they heard my last name or the fact that I was MB). Before I went to college, I would've just considered myself Mennonite. I'm willing to bet that many other MBs may simply consider themselves Mennonite. But I've been out of the MB world since I was 18, so maybe I have a skewed view of it. All this is to say I don't think MBs are miffed or relieved at the lack of “Brethren” in the book.

  82. Dora Dueck says:

    To answer Clif's question about whether Janzen's book has been reviewed in any Mennonite Brethren publications: I checked with the assistant editor of the MB Herald (the Canadian MB periodical) and she said a review of the book will land in the March issue. — I'm an MBer, and reviewed the book on my blog but did not address the question about the “missing word.” I knew Rhoda Janzen's context so read it through that, and my own MB, lens but there was so much else going on in terms of (in my opinion) missing nuance, I wasn't particularly miffed or thankful either on that score.

  83. angelakelsey says:

    Shirley,Your site is an amazing resource. Thanks for this review, and a lot of new thoughts for chewing on, and for reminding me that I should be the antagonist of my memoir!

  84. shirleyhs says:

    So happy to welcome you to this space, Angela. I look forward to hearing more of your story!

  85. shirleyhs says:

    So happy to welcome you to this space, Angela. I look forward to hearing more of your story!

  86. AbnerS says:

    I didn't mind Rhoda Janzen's use of sexual words but I thought it was clear that she deliberately wanted to shock. I also thought that:1. she was very unkind in the way she described her parents2. she deliberately threw in words that are rarely, if ever, used in conversation, i.e., she was trying to showing off her professor-ness3. she apparently doesn't know the larger Mennonite world, which is much larger than Mennonite Brethern

  87. AbnerS says:

    I didn't mind Rhoda Janzen's use of sexual words but I thought it was clear that she deliberately wanted to shock. I also thought that:1. she was very unkind in the way she described her parents2. she deliberately threw in words that are rarely, if ever, used in conversation, i.e., she was trying to showing off her professor-ness3. she apparently doesn't know the larger Mennonite world, which is much larger than Mennonite Brethern

  88. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, AbnerS, for sharing your opinion. I'm honored that this blog has become a place where people with different viewpoints share their impressions of this book. If you've read all 64 of the comments above, you know you are not alone.

  89. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, AbnerS, for sharing your opinion. I'm honored that this blog has become a place where people with different viewpoints share their impressions of this book. If you've read all 64 of the comments above, you know you are not alone.

  90. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Dora. Your MB perspective is really valuable here. One thing this book has allowed Mennonite readers from all branches of the family to recognize is how much–or little!–we know about each other. I invite readers here to click on your name to visit your own excellent blog. There's a fascinating conversation on human nature–good or bad–going on there!

  91. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Dora. Your MB perspective is really valuable here. One thing this book has allowed Mennonite readers from all branches of the family to recognize is how much–or little!–we know about each other. I invite readers here to click on your name to visit your own excellent blog. There's a fascinating conversation on human nature–good or bad–going on there!

  92. shirleyhs says:

    Jdp,Once again you have offered a really interesting window into the dynamics among “MBs” and “OMs.” This lack of “border consciousness” among MB's is all the more impressive, since the insertion of “Brethren” into the name at the point of the split in Russia must have been very important at one time. Right?

  93. shirleyhs says:

    Jdp,Once again you have offered a really interesting window into the dynamics among “MBs” and “OMs.” This lack of “border consciousness” among MB's is all the more impressive, since the insertion of “Brethren” into the name at the point of the split in Russia must have been very important at one time. Right?

  94. Karin says:

    I am a little late coming to this conversation, but I spent the better part of my evening pouring over the comments–yes, all 66 of them. I am especially intrigued with this idea of truth. It is a conversation that I have had with members of my own family, some of whom get upset when a story is told by one individual in a way that does not reflect the way they remember it. I think that I fall into jdp's court–that there is no Truth–at least no Truth that one person can claim. We all have these lenses that we use to understand the events happening around us, and as lenses and experiences change, so do stories and memories of an event. I think I understood this at a very young age, and that was one reason I started journaling–to keep the stories as fresh and close to the Truth as possible. But even as I journal I am aware that I am recording something that is very much my own experience, and that it is not a truth shared by anyone else, though elements of it may be the same. I am amazed at the number of times I go back to read something in my journal and think to myself, “Wow, I don't remember it that way at all!”When I read a memoir I always read it with the understanding that this is one person’s perspective. That is what makes it personal and interesting. If all perspectives were covered in a memoir it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to read, and would lose its “memoir-ness.” That being said, I do believe that an author must give thought to how her personal story will change the lives of other friends/family around her.

  95. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Karin, for your insights on how different members of the same family can see the world and remember the same experience quite differently. So true.Glad you made it through all 66 of these comments. I believe this memoir has evoked almost all the issues worth discussing about the memoir as a genre.

  96. jdp says:

    I don't pretend to be a MB history scholar–but I know there was a revival of sorts in Russia before the migration to the US, which led some Mennonite congregations to insert the name “brethren” in their identity. I have a friend who grew up GC who said (in his opinion) that MBs were more progressive (and more true to the Anabaptist ideal) than the Mennonite Church at the time (around 1860) as far as a more personal relationship with God and not depending so much on the blessings of the elders in charge of the wider Mennonite church–although most MC USA folks would probably say they are more progressive (some might say liberal) than MBs now. I tend to agree with them on that point, though there are always exceptions to any rule.Today I had a conversation with a woman who grew up GC just thirty miles away from where I was raised, and she agreed with me that she was not pushed to see MBs as that different from GCs, so perhaps the lack of border consciousness is a) a midwestern thing (we're both from KS) or b) a generational thing (we're of the 25-35 age group). Or a bit of both. Those first years in the 1870s on the plains were harsh ones–I'm sure people had to put theological debates on the sidelines during that time just for survival. And my generation is one that is more universal–we are more exposed to the world (for good or for ill) then the generation of our parents and grandparents, so borders (like a slight derivation from within a minority group) are not seen as important as they once were. But the opinions of two women from the same MC USA church is hardly a scientific study, so I may be assuming too much.I've said in an earlier post that even Janzen's version of MBs is not necessarily MY version of MBs. Her family came to Canada (then the US) much later than mine–if I remember correctly, around 50-60 years later, so right there is more than a generation spent apart from each other. A lot can happen in that amount of time.I have to reiterate that this is a memoir about a slice of Mennonite life. Perhaps she should have put it out there more boldly, but one would hope that a reader of memoirs would realize that without a direct statement.

  97. melaniespringermock says:

    I find these posts fascinating, and am grateful to Shirley for opening up space for discussion. I'm intrigued by JDP's experiences inscribed above, because they show how much our perspectives can be different. I grew up in Kansas in the mid-70s/early 80s, and felt the difference between GCs and MBs acutely. I was the daughter of a GC pastor in a predominantly MB town, and felt like a minority. (Ha! I wonder how the one Catholic in my class felt . . .) My MB friends struck me as more pious–though I wouldn't have been able to articulate that when I was young; I just knew I couldn't say “jeez” at their house, or I'd get in trouble. I knew they were different in how they baptized people, and imagined that one difference was only the surface of much deeper differences. The big MB church in town (and that I call it the “Big MB” probably gives a clue to the town in which I lived 🙂 ) was THE church, and I always felt an inferiority complex because we didn't go there. I felt inferior to the pastor's kid in that church; it seemed her dad made more money than mine, and she always wore nicer clothes. I was also a Bethel fan in a Tabor town, and my one or two GC friends and I would have fights with my MB friends about which school was better (we were in middle school, so had little basis for discussion). Even if we were friends every other week of the year, during the week of the Tabor/Bethel football game, all friendships were off with the MBs.Of course, it would be lovely now to talk with my friends from that time, to see if they remembered things as I did. Maybe the MB friends, at least, saw things as totally different!

  98. shirleyhs says:

    A message to Melanie and JDP. I think Discus may be running out of space. I was not able to post below so I am trying a new location within the comments section.How interesting to have your respective windows into MB/GC life on the plains, in CA, and Canada. I grew up totally insulated from all of these “other” Mennonites. My world was the Lancaster Conference (big enough to be a world unto itself if your world is small enough–perhaps the highest concentration of Mennonites anywhere???) and the big issue of the 1960’s was dress! I was vaguely aware of the “worldlier” (more liberal dress policies–no coverings and plain suits) Ohio Conference (GC, I think, the only other Lancaster County, PA Menno choice). College was not encouraged, but if you went, there were only three Mennonite colleges—Eastern Mennonite, Hesston, and Goshen—and EMC and sometimes Hesston were the only ones most trusted, if at all, by church leaders in the Lancaster Conference. Only when I started teaching at Goshen did I even realize that Bluffton, Bethel, Tabor, and Fresno Pacific existed! JDP, you have illustrated well how the colleges break down and reassemble these various branches of the family tree. Since the MC-USA structure emerged, there is slightly more knowledge of the other branches, but that does not often include the MB branch for Eastern Mennos, especially.Only EMU and then Goshen College and then the Mennonite Weekly Review (in my home we only got the Gospel Herald) opened up the worlds you are describing, Melanie and jdp. My youthful experience of the church was fixated so much on dress that I got precious little of the Anabaptist history that was supposed to be uniting us all after the Goshen School of the 40's-60's. I did get Dirk Willems' story in my instruction class, however. Thanks much for sharing these memories. Now you know why I was resistant to see a covering on the cover of a book from someone who had never worn one. It's fine to have a slice of life from one Menno tradition. I'm all for that. But those of us who actually spent years living under the veil while going to a public high school in the 1960's have a slice that is different from those who did not. The cover confused the slices. Glad to know it is changed in the paper edition.

  99. shirleyhs says:

    For all of you who subscribed to the comments on this post–here is a 30-minute interview on the podcast Writers on Writing in which Rhoda Janzen is asked about two issues of interest to readers: how she sold the book and the “hands on” role of her editor in it, and also how she deals with the feelings of family and friends who are–or who or not (can also be a problem) described in the book.This podcast is well worth the 30-60 minutes it takes to listen to it. Dani Shapiro is the first interview. Rhoda is the second.

  100. Karin says:

    Hi Shirley, I wanted to listen to this podcast, but couldn't find the link. Can you clue me in?

  101. shirleyhs says:

    I forgot the linK! Sorry about that. Here it is.http://penonfire.blogspot.com/2010/02/memoirist

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  103. shirleyhs says:

    Have you read the new David Shields book called Reality Hungar? It was reviewed extensively in The Guardian and I guess pretty much turns the distinction between fiction and memoir upside down, although that was not the purpose of the book. I have not read the book yet but am fascinated just by the review. Also, did you know that Henry Holt is publishing a new novel by Bo Caldwell called City of Tranquil Light, also about Mennonites–missionaries to China? I look forward to reviewing it because it uses the author's grandfather's memoir as one of the sources for the story.

  104. jdp says:

    Very interesting (Reality Hunger). I'll have to check it out.I searched the web about City of Tranquil Light, and noticed in the Henry Holt rights guide, no mention of Mennonites is made. Wonder if that was the author's choice or the publishing house? I'm looking forward to reading that one when it comes out.

  105. jdp says:

    Very interesting (Reality Hunger). I'll have to check it out.I searched the web about City of Tranquil Light, and noticed in the Henry Holt rights guide, no mention of Mennonites is made. Wonder if that was the author's choice or the publishing house? I'm looking forward to reading that one when it comes out.

  106. Dora Dueck says:

    In one conversation I read re. Bo Caldwell's new book, I believe the grandparents were referred to as Nazarene missionaries. Curiouser and curiouser.

  107. shirleyhs says:

    Hope you discovered the recent posting of Jeff Gundy's memoir class syllabus here. I would have sent you the link, but maybe you have subscribed to the blog and saw it a few days ago on your own. Hope your class went well. Anytime you want to offer a guest post about your experiences teaching memoir, the forum here is open to you.

  108. shirleyhs says:

    I can testify that the novel is about a Mennonite missionary because the publisher sent me a review copy. I have only read enough at the beginning to see that the author tells the Prussia-Russia-Kansas-Oklahoma story very straightforwardly. I will review the book in late summer. General Conference Mennonite background for the main character Will. Could be that his wife, who has not yet entered the story, has a different denominational history. But Will is definitely shaped by Mennonite piety and practice.

  109. shirleyhs says:

    The issue of family and memoir that has been discussed here was addressed today by Linda Joy Myers. Commenters here might want to join the conversation at the end of today's post. Your chance to a copy of The Power of Memoir.http://www.100memoirs.com/2010/03/all-in-the-fa

  110. James Toews says:

    Hi ShirleyI came across this discussion via Dora's Blog and because of the fact that I'm finishing off an article that refers to Little Black Dress, in the MBH. Great discussion and the added comments by family are very powerful. It makes the book challenging to respond to.I know that Miriam Toews' “A Complicated Kindness” is a novel but it mines the same culture and runs the same gauntlet of wounded relatives. I didn't grow up in her community but as a kin, I read that book differently as well and have also heard the painful fallout. When I read Janzen's book it read like a less wounded Toews' but a voice that sounded very much the same to me.I will be dropping in again. The Memoir idea is great!

  111. shirleyhs says:

    Welcome, James! I am so grateful to Dora for her generous mention of this blog in her own excellent one: http://doradueck.wordpress.com/about/I have not read A Complicated Kindness, but other Canadian readers have mentioned it. I hope to add it to the very tall stack of other books beside my desk right now!Dew Drop Inn again. 🙂 That was the name of my cabin at Laurelville camp when I was 12. I thought it was enormously clever.

  112. Marilyn P. says:

    I'm a GC (General Conference [Canada]) or United Mennonite and I went to an MB high school. Although we got along fairly well, trust me, there were sometimes bad feelings as to who was a 'Real Mennonite'. The Mennonite Brethren considered us United Mennos were worldly. We thought they were too elitist. What my Penn-Dutch Mennonite neighbours thought of us – they were too polite to say; but I think they thought we were all worldly. After all, we had televisions and they didn't. (Well, when you've lived in my area since 1785, I suppose you can roll your eyes at the strange borscht belt Mennos whilst eating your shoo-fly pie.)I always felt I come from a divided heritage. One parent was MB and the other General Conference. My MB Opa and Oma seemed to act as though their in-laws were raising us kids in sin. My General Conference Opa and Oma thought we were too uptight. My fellow neighbour kids and us could not figure out how we were all Mennonites because we were so different: Russlanders v.s. Penn-Dutch and Russ vs. Russ. (A good thing no 1870 migration Mennos lived in our area. It would have been more complicated) Our non-Mennonite neighbours couldn't figure it out either.

  113. shirleyhs says:

    Our differences seem pretty silly, now that you put them this way, Marilyn. Thanks for checking in here. I have enjoyed meeting so many people through this medium. With every comment, I am challenged to reconsider my own experience and perspective. Hope you visit again soon.

  114. shirleyhs says:

    Those of you interested in the issue of what the author owes other people in his or her stories will want to read this essay by Richard Kauffman in Christian Century: http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?i

  115. shirleyhs says:

    For those of you who commented long ago on Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, here is the info on City of Tranquil Light, the book by Bo Caldwell that was discussed in this thread some months ago. The publication date is set for Sept. 28. I was given three pre-publication hardcover books to giveaway on my blog, so you all have a chance to “win” one of these beauties. Details are here:http://100memoirs.com/2010/09/16/city-of-tranquil-light-a-fabulous-pre-publication-book-giveaway/

    BTW, the mystery is solved about the denominational ties in the book. The main characters are called Mennonite. We would know them as MB. But the real-life grandparents of the author, on which the story is roughly based, started out Mennonite and later became Nazarene. So both denominations should have an interest in the book, though I am sure some Nazarenes will be disappointed not to be credited in the book with nurturing such beautiful, faithful, characters.

  116. David Leaman says:

    I listened to an audio version of Rhoda Janzen’s book in the car on a long road trip this weekend. It was the most enjoyment I have had on the Indiana and Ohio turnpikes. Ever. Janzen’s descriptions had me laughing for miles and her adult navigations and ruminations felt close to home and very true. I had not read any reviews before listening to the book, only the comment of an old Goshen College friend who told me she found the description of the mother very resonant and funny. I also knew that the book was a bestseller. Since reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (well, to be precise, hearing the book read by an excellent reader) this weekend, I have read various reviews and read/skimmed some of the interesting exchanges on this blog. Thanks, (my former) professor Shirley, for facilitating a thoughtful conversation.
    I am not going to try to address all the issues here but I have a few thoughts. First, although I see a number of reviewers comparing Rhoda Janzen to Garrison Keillor and David Sedaris, the two humorists who came to my mind as I was listening to her growing-up-Mennonite stories on my drive to Cleveland on Friday were Chris Rock (in his Everybody Hates Chris mode) and Adam Langer (Crossing California). To me, Janzen’s comic creation is that good! I enjoy Garrison Keillor but, as someone who grew up Mennonite, that probably isn’t much of a surprise (isn’t Keillor already an honorary Menno?). I think the fact that a Mennonite community has now produced a Chris Rock is something rather startling and truly worth celebrating. Yes, Rhoda Janzen is wicked, and I think wickedly good.
    Second, the line between memoir and novel and sitcom is certainly often blurry. Is Everybody Hates Chris an “accurate” memoir of Chris Rock’s Brooklyn childhood? Are his stories “factual”? I don’t know but they sure are funny and somehow feel true. Adam Langer’s novel about growing up in Chicago’s west Rogers Park community in the late 1970s made me positively roar. I am not sure how most Jews felt about his wild irreverence but I do know that to date Jews have produced (and blessed?) a far greater number of wicked comedians than the Mennonites have. (By the way, Langer offers a perspective on the overlaps between memoir and fiction in his most recent book, The Thieves of Manhattan, a novel about a memoirist or fabulist or novelist or something like that.)
    Finally, from what I can tell, if I ever met Rhoda Janzen, she would be way too stylish and LA glam for me (although I was tickled to learn that she has lived for ten years in the conservative west Michigan region that I called home for several years but left for Chicago). Still, I think Janzen is much more profound than she is perhaps getting credit for on this blog’s conversation. Intermingled with her book’s comedy is some real wisdom, I think. Her thoughts on roads taken/not taken rang so true for me that I felt mist in my eyes and had to pause the Ipod to explain my feelings to my wife. I also thought Janzen had some sensible things to say about virtue. (To me, she also clearly loves her family.) The fact that this book has reached such a wide audience shows to me that her appeal is not limited to snobbish academics who like to laugh down at quaint folks. Isn’t it possible that her humor and wisdom in coming to terms with her personal travails has struck some deep chords in a lot of people out there with their varied backgrounds and on their varied journeys of healing? I am very curious about the multitude of people out there who are reading her book.

  117. shirleyhs says:

    David, I love hearing from former students, especially when they make such intelligent observations and such passionate defenses of books they love. I am going to admit something that will not surprise you, since, Mennonite-style, I always seem to be two steps behind the pop culture. I’ve heard of Chris Rock, but I don’t recall seeing him perform. And I don’t know Adam Langer at all. But I get the point about comedy, especially satire. It isn’t satire if it isn’t exaggeration. But the question is, can/should a memoir be a satire? If so, does it owe anything to the objects of the satire who happen to be other human beings, often those closely related to the author?

    For me the litmus test is still evidence in the text of a MEMOIR (not another humorous book even when the voice is in the first person) or in the pre- or post-material that the family and friends under the microscope are so good-natured they approve and laugh along. Another thing that helps me with satire is when the author sometimes makes herself/himself the butt of the joke. S/he doesn’t just make exaggerate miseries. S/he points a steely eye on personal foibles, cruelties, gaps between values and actions as much for self as for other people.

    There was a wonderful conversation about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections on the Diane Rehm Show last week. http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2010-09-22/readers-review-corrections-jonathan-franzen. Three critics defended three very different views of the book published in 2001 which won the National Book Award. It was a satire of midwestern family life. Some found it both funny and moving. One did not. She made a distinction between irony as being a contradiction we all share in and satire in which the author is sending out projectiles aimed at other people, their culture, their inferior values. Even if you agree on the definitions, of course, you can still disagree about whether a particular book or a particular author is using irony or satire.

    So, I’m off to watch some Chris Rock and Adam Langer YouTubes. Thanks for being part of my continuing education, David. And send me an email note to tell me what you are up to these days! shirley.showalter (at) gmail.com

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  120. shirleyhs says:

    Readers of this blog who enjoyed Janzen’s treatment of food, may rejoice to learn that a new cookbook, Mennonite Girls Can Cook, has just been published. You can learn more here:
    http://store.mpn.net/productdetails.cfm?PC=1624

    For “old Mennonites” (Swiss/German) like myself, this is a chance to learn how the “Russian Mennonites” cook. Janzen’s historical background is Russian, and she has written some of her cleverest chapters on her family’s ethnic cuisine. Buy the book, support a good cause, and make your own borscht!

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  122. shirleyhs says:

    Those of you who commented on this review might enjoy the new discussion that is happening with my latest blog post. Thanks so much for being part of my education here as well: http://100memoirs.com/2011/10/30/a-book-contract-a-dilemma-and-an-idea/

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