Blue jeans vs. black dressBy Shirley Hershey Showalter
One of the hazards of publishing a memoir is that no one person’s story matches another’s idea of truth — even if that person is a member of your own family or community. Some memoirists care deeply about this. Annie Dillard is one of them: “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.”
When Rhoda Janzen’s 2009 bestselling memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, became a hit in New York, many Mennonites in her home town of Fresno, Calif., felt kicked around, and at least one of them began looking for a printing press.
Rhonda Langley tells her story as an almost-exact contemporary of Janzen’s but one whose only relationship with New York was a very short stint as the manager of Menno House on 19th Street in Manhattan. She could hardly wait to leave the city and return to her roots.
Langley reverses the typical American writer’s story: instead of fleeing the village for the seductive city, she looks up at a plane in the sky over LaGuardia and dreams about flying home to Fresno. Her memoir represents the road not taken of her now- famous former classmate, Rhoda Janzen.
What I like most about Mennonite in Blue Jeans is Langley’s humor even in the midst of pain, her occasional lyricism and her honesty. She makes fun of herself and Mennonite frugality when she refuses to buy Mennonite in a Little Black Dress in a Portland library used-book bin because it costs $3.25. “Maybe if it were priced at a quarter,” is her response upon finding the book. I smiled often at dry or droll descriptions and laughed out loud when she translates her parents’ broken German, her earlier assumptions about their fluency shattered.
As a trained musician and an introvert, Langley becomes most lyrical when describing music, a form of language that reaches beyond words. Her desperation to sing hymn “606” with the congregation, her fear that it won’t be possible due to the needs of her children, and her rejoicing when at last she joins the others in song can perhaps only be fully understood by another harried Mennonite mother.
But the writing speaks to everyone because it comes directly from her heart. So does the section on learning to play the carillon bells at the Duke Chapel and later the chance to play the Riverside Church bells in New York, giving her the opportunity to write this poignant sentence: “Just once my notes rang out over Manhattan.”
Finally, Langley is honest. She admits that part of the reason she had trouble with Janzen’s book is that she herself has harbored a dream to be “the voice of the Mennonites.” My guess is that there are scores, maybe hundreds, of Mennonites harboring that dream — and that some of the protest from Mennonites about a best-selling memoir with “Mennonite” in the title came because they didn’t get there first.
Janzen’s story evoked enough passion from Langley, who was already working every waking hour, to write furiously all through a Lenten season and produce her first book. I hope it won’t be her last. She self-published this book and, as part of her humor, uses every opportunity to un-market it. The blurbs come from her family. You can’t buy the book on Amazon, and it has no Library of Congress number. I hope her next book will have the benefit of professional editing and marketing.
The good news for Langley and for all aspiring Mennonite writers is that there is no one voice of the Mennonites, no matter how brilliant or profound. If each Mennonite voice added just one note, there would be a choir over Manhattan to rival the singing of 606.
Shirley Hershey Showalter, Goshen College president from 1996 to 2004, can be found at www.shirleyshowalter.com.
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