This tartly told memoir with its tenderhearted core and luscious detailings of tangy borschts and double-decker Zwiebach buns slathered with homemade rhubarb jam is an honest, philosophical chronicle of poet and English professor Rhoda Janzen's return home at 43, to her Mennonite family, after being chewed up by a soap operatic sequence of very real personal calamities.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress begins when Janzen's botched hysterectomy leaves her Velcro-strapping a urine collection bag to her thigh for six months. Just as she's snapped back from incontinence, Nick (her hunky, frequently drunk, charming, bipolar, and verbally abusive husband of 15 years) leaves her for Bob, a man he's met on Gay.com. That same week, a tipsy teen driver crashes Janzen's car on a snowy road. She ends up with two broken ribs and a fractured clavicle. "Under circumstances like these, what was�a gal to do?" she asks. "I'll tell you what I did. I went home to the Mennonites."
What transcends Mennonite in a Little Black Dress from a series of zany essays on "Menno" culture (a capella singalongs, raisins, and sweater vests) is Janzen's deeply nurtured respect for her community. She observes that, like the rest of us, Mennonites struggle with bratty children, substance abuse, dieting, and cheesy first dates an admission that opens up her quest to re-learn happiness into a universally felt exploration.
Janzen's spiritual leader turns out to be her sunny, irreverent mother, Mary, whose bouncy perceptions of sorrow, death, marriage between first cousins, and bodily functions she casually breaks wind at Kohl's while inspecting bundt pans end up revealing how intimately she grasps the true order of things. Hillary Huber is the narrator of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and her droll, throaty voiceover perfectly pitches to Janzen's acerbic wit and academic background. A master quick-change artist, Huber so nimbly spins into bubbly, chattery Mary Janzen that when she conspiratorially shares, "A relaxed pothead sounds nice", about Rhoda's latest fling, it registers as mildly as "Please pass the Cotletten, dear." Nita Rao