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Writer Wednesday: Mennonite in Blue Jeans (and a book giveaway!)

December 9, 2015


I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read a book that was so clearly a knock-off of the wildly successful Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen, 2009, pictured below) which I’d read in my pre-blogging days. That was a book that I loved but hated, as did many other Mennonite or formerly Mennonite readers.

I got Mennonite in Blue Jeans (Rhonda Langley, 2011) free at the office, and the frugal Mennonite in me brought it home and finally ventured to read it recently.

Blue Jeans was worth the read. Rhonda Langley had me when she confessed why she eventually decided not to go the academic route and instead went into special education working with children with autism. She started a masters in comparative literature but stopped short of writing a thesis because she grew a little dubious of the pattern in much of academia (for literature scholars in her case) to do endless research and papers and articles and go to conferences debating or defending literary theories, which in 10 years is replaced by a new literary theory debunking the research of the past 10 years. And repeat.

As a college English major who sometimes thought my professors had gone off the deep end in explaining the rather obtuse (to me) meaning behind certain poems or passages in novels, and debated said theories, I connected.

Langley also had me when she confessed that while Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was drop dead hilarious and had me laughing because Janzen got so many things just right, I was also extremely bothered that Janzen got so many things wrong or twisted or just off base enough that if anyone were to read Mennonite in Little Black Dress and think “this is how all Mennonites are,” they would be oh so wrong.

Mennonite Brethren Rhonda Langley actually knows author Rhoda Janzen (also originally Mennonite Brethren, now Pentecostal, I believe) and went to school where Rhoda was an adjunct professor, but she did not know her well. They both grew up near Fresno, Calif. (“not a mile from each other”) and with their similarity of names, Rhonda says she was a logical fit to write this knock off. They are also both nearly six feet tall. Which is kinda rare among Mennonites of any type to grow so tall. Eh? Rhonda does an admirable job of correcting or speaking to the places where Rhoda got Mennonites wrong (or was misleading), or painted with too broad a brush.

At first I was a little put off by the made up “Advance Praise” for Mennonite in Blue Jeans from her husband, mother and son with lines like “It’s good. Really!” and “I’m sure Aunt Marie won’t burn this one!” And “It’s really funny.” With all the really’s and weak descriptors though, it’s obvious she’s just poking fun at weak writing and the “advance praise” practice. Similarly, the made up publishing company and fake Library of Congress information (she used online company to print the actual book) helps me realize that ok, this is a person who does not take herself too seriously. She takes her writing seriously—I mean she’s a fine memoir writer here (includes numerous touching sonnets for her husband), but when you’re writing a knock off, it helps not to take yourself “dead serious.” As can be expected in most self-published books, there’s a glaring error or three, but again, I won’t get my panties in a curl over them.

What I really appreciated were Rhonda’s sometimes painfully honest portrayals of their family life (husband and two sons), where for some years they were not able to sit through a complete church service because of several difficult diagnoses including her husband’s severe hearing sensitivity and fibromyalgia, and a son’s anxiety and high-functioning autism. Surely other families who have those or similar issues can not only empathize, but appreciate the dilemmas. When one Sunday they finally make it through a service where Rhonda is determined to hang in there for the singing of The Mennonite Hymnal’s 606 (Mennonite codeword for this “national Mennonite anthem”), we feel the joyous emotion of this beleaguered but totally normal young Mennonite mom. I love her line, “This is why we come. This is what church should be; a community of people lifted beyond themselves together.”

She writes of one service when a different but also beautiful hymn carries her to a higher plane: “Shepherd me O God / Beyond my wants /Beyond my fears / From death into life.” Rhonda’s father has written some hymns and worked on the committee that compiled Hymnal: A Worship Book. She is also a pianist herself and, remarkably, learned to play carillons while at Duke University.

Rhonda’s chapter on Portland Mennonite’s annual retreat at Twin Rocks along the coast of Oregon could make a Mennonite out of almost anyone, it is described with such inviting and homey/community vignettes.

There’s much more I could say but I’ll leave you read the book. If you read the first Mennonite Girl in a Little Black Dress and loved/hated it, or were confused about what Mennonites actually believe and do, you would likely appreciate this book.

And, uh, I’m a little late to the game. A few others have reviewed this small book including memoir writer and blogger, Shirley Hershey Showalter. For another take.

But I’m glad I read it. Working for the publisher of More-with-Less Cookbook and Living More With Less, the book contains many enjoyable and appreciated cultural references to these landmark Mennonite books.

And now in good frugal fashion, I’m happy to pass on my copy of Mennonite in Blue Jeans to the first person who comments here that they want it. Freely I received, freely I’ll give. I’ll contact you for a mailing address. (But I won’t be giving away my copy of Mennonite Girl in a Little Black Dress, for which I paid full price.) If you’re not the first commenter and would like the book, never fear, you can still buy it on


Have you read either or both books? Thoughts?

What hymn moves you most?


The cover of Mennonite in Blue Jeans reminds me of the sorta-amateurish looking book with another young Mennonite woman in blue jeans, on my own first published book (Herald Press, a memoir before we used that word much). I did not take the photo but suggested the idea and was pleased to know my friend and writing bud, Ginny Hostetler was the model Mike Hostetler used for this photo!

  1. Lauren Strawderman permalink

    I’d like to read it and then I’ll pass it along.

  2. Dan Dyck permalink

    Read Black Dress and also loved/hated it. Would enjoy Blue Jeans for the counterbalance.

  3. Good reads — yours and Rhonda’s and Rhoda’s. Enjoyed your review. Thanks for the shout out. I knew I had reviewed this book too. You made it easy to revisit. Merry Christmas.

    • I know I read your review at the time, but I happened on to it again only by googling. Yours is one of a handful of significant “Mennonite memoirs” of the last 5-6 years.

  4. Thanks for the back story and little side roads I took as I read you review. Yes, I’ve read Rhoda’s book, but not Rhonda’s, which you made sound very appealing.

    Judging from the “cat” poem, you still have the same wry voice – only a little stronger. I’m sorry I wasn’t the first to appear here – missed my chance. 😉

    • And you are here first so often!! Sorry. I thought to myself, well, Marian will probably be first on the block, if she hasn’t read it. 🙂 I’m sure you have a long reading list as well!

  5. Gayle Ann permalink

    I did not “Black Dress,” to the point that I didn’t even donate it somewhere because I didn’t want someone else reading it. I felt she blamed the church for everything wrong in her life. She admitted she made the decisions, but her religious experiences trained her or influenced her decision making process.

    She never seems to take responsibility for anything in her life. Marrying was an act of defiance, despite clear signs it wasn’t the right decision. And, still, by the end of the book, she still didn’t understand, leading me to believe, she didn’t want to understand. She wanted a scapegoat.

    I did not understand the positive press the book received, other than it was part of the fascination with Mennonite/Amish culture. As a woman with 3 graduate degrees, I was hoping for something that talked about the women in our faith who went to graduate school, and lead, compared to traditional circles, unconventional lives. Instead, it was a slam of a faith that I hold dear, and a clear story that despite intelligence, some people just don’t get it. Had she listened to God, and still attended graduate school, her life would have been different. What was most interesting, was that when she wrote of things that were clearly teaching moments, she still missed the message.

    I understand that she didn’t like church life, or being the daughter of “the Pope,” a rather nasty, and not entirely accurate, analogy. But, her deliberate rebellion caused her life outcomes. The church isn’t the root of her problems. Her refusal to use it, except when she needed it, is her problem. God isn’t the drive-thru at McDonalds. You just can’t pull up to the menu, order what you want, and drive away. In college, a pastor’s message one Sunday was that you can’t expect to not study, show up, say a prayer, and think God will give you the answers to take a test. Ms. Janzen approached God in that manner. She didn’t want a relationship. She demanded God intervene on her terms, then give her what she wanted, so she could drive off until she wanted another burger/blessing. And, then, she had the nerve to complain when God didn’t deliver on her terms. Somewhere, in all of those years of church, she never got the message, and as she had multiple opportunities, it was clear she didn’t want the message. I actually felt sorry for her parents, and for her, not because of what happened to her, but because she clearly missed a message given so many times, and one which many people never hear or hear only once.

    Church life isn’t perfect, especially if you don’t have a traditional last name. I don’t agree with every position the church takes, and I have been more than disgusted at the gradual turn into a political action group vs. a church. But, I support it, and I do the things required, because to not do so would not only be wrong, and be a bad example, but it would leave me without it, which would put me adrift. Churches are run by people, who are not perfect. I believe most Mennonite churches are filled with people who legitimately try to be good people, and put their own interests and desires second to everyone else. Also, being part of a community comes with responsibilities, and privileges. Being part of a community influences behavior. And, the things with which I don’t agree, I respectfully decline to participate. Just because I don’t think God wants me to picket some political issue, doesn’t mean that I don’t support the church. And, it teaches me nothing is perfect, and that one doesn’t leave whenever something happens one doesn’t like. I’m not 2. Stamping my feet and leaving the room isn’t a proper response. If everyone left over something they didn’t like, the church would be empty.

    Perhaps I missed the point of the book. But, blaming God and Mennonite church for the outcome of your life, when you’ve ignored everything it tried to teach you seems childish, and bitter. One has to wonder about the non-Mennonites who read the book, and the unflattering picture it presented. One has to wonder about how many people, after reading it, decided not to even try a church, or to stop attending because they didn’t like some aspect of it. It clearly wasn’t a book designed to present God and church in a positive light, which is why I didn’t pass it along to anyone. It isn’t my place to damage someone’s relationship, or discourage one that already exists.

    • Gayle, thanks for your long, thoughtful, even provocative comment and questions. I agree that the book had/has potential to turn people off. Have you heard about Rhoda’s follow up book, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right??

      I have not read that one but it details Rhoda’s return to faith and her eventual joining another denomination, I believe. Like all of us, it sounds like Rhoda has changed and matured perhaps in how she relates some of these things.

      I do think part of the “blame” is in the whole publishing/social media industry and going for the quick click and buck. Which I participate in, also. 😦

      Again, thanks for your feedback here!

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