German Pietists Take on California - Book Review by Elektragheorgheni

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One thing is clear from what h2g2ers talk about: they read a lot. It's high time some of you shared your thoughts on what you're reading. Elektra volunteered to get the ball rolling with this book review. From what she says, it's an amusing story, and I'm planning on reading it. (I can borrow her copy.) – DG

German Pietists Take on California: A Book Review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home), by Rhoda Janzen

Mennonites in front of a church

Dmitri tossed me this book in the Superbullseye the other day. He said, 'This looks like something you'd want to read.' I wondered why. Then I read it and it caused me to laugh and be a bit confused by some things because of my own family background. One of my grandmothers was Pennsylvania Dutch and the other was Lithuanian Jewish. The foods described in this memoir as Mennonite seemed to be a mixture of both nationalities' cuisines. Instead of shoofly pie and chicken pot pie, the author regales us with the embarrassments of taking borscht in thermos containers to school. The reason is that Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite ancestors came from a German-speaking community in the Ukraine.

The author is a middle-aged poet who grew up in California and has a PhD from the University of California. The higher degree is most unusual for Mennonites, who, like their Amish coreligionists, do not hold with academia much. Girls should know how to sew and cook vast quantities of food on short notice rather than spending their time at schools learning secular and ungodly nonsense.

Not only had the author opted for a wide-travelling academic lifestyle, but she married Nick, a brilliant 'potty-mouthed atheist' who also had bipolar disorder. Because of the tolerant way she was raised she accepted, married, financially supported and loved this person for 15 years. Then after she had a botched operation and he nursed her (in her mind lovingly), he up and left her for a man named Bob from As if that wasn't enough, she was in a car accident, which left her further debilitated, with an expensive mortgage. She decided it was time to go home to her retired parents in California and do some freelance academic work while she was there.

Her father is a big noise in the Mennonite community. He was the president of the American and Canadian congregations. He is very tall and handsome but sartorially challenged. Her mother is a lovely, warm, outgoing, non-judgemental person, a retired nurse who was liable to talk shop during meals. This habit of discussing bodily fluids and medical procedures at the dinner table distracted her daughters to no end.

Anyone who is an adult and ends up living back home will recognize the incongruities of the situation and laugh. Especially if you are of a marriageable age and your family/community try to match-make. In addition, the contrast between Mennonite philosophy and the secular narcissism of most of California was funny.

All in all, this was a fun book. It was a New York Times bestseller. It is not book prize-worthy, nor particularly cerebral, but it does include 'Shame-based Recipes' (not for fat- or calorie-counters), and a 'Mennonite History Primer', which would have made a good guide entry. It demonstrates the virtues and drawbacks of this particular weird denomination and ethnic group and some of their contributions to world history.


Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen copyright 2009, was published by Henry Holt and is available in bookstores as hardback, paperback, audio book, and Kindle as well as Nook editions.

  • Available in Hardback ISBN:978-0-8050-8925-7
  • Available in Paperback ISBN:978-0-8050-9225-7
  • Available in Audio book (CD Unabridged; 8 hours on 7 CDs)
    ISBN-13: 978-1598879070

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