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Personal memoirs offers readers a peak into someone's window

By Valerie Rempel

Personal memoirs seem to be showing up everywhere. Spend a few minutes at your local bookstore or favorite Internet site and you’ll find dozens of titles and as many different topics. Everyone, it seems, has a story.
Writers with connections to U.S. Mennonite Brethren are no exception.

Katie Funk Wiebe, a longtime contributor to the Christian Leader, has published several memoirs including her recent book, You Never Gave Me a Name: One Mennonite Woman’s Story (Dreamseeker Books, 2009). Rhoda Janzen, a professor and poet, made the New York Times bestseller’s list and stirred some controversy with her humor-laced Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt & Co, 2009). Rhonda Langley, a special education teacher, took a different approach with a self-published memoir titled Mennonite in Blue Jeans: a Lenten Journey (Forest Rose Books, 2011) and this spring, poet Jean Janzen’s memoir, Into the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing, will be released (Good Books, 2012).

Why do we read or write memoirs?

For Christians, exploring our lives and fashioning our stories is a way to reflect on how God has been at work. As Thomas Larson puts it, writing a memoir is “useful in getting at the truth.”

At the heart of a good memoir is an interesting story. Wiebe’s account of her youth, marriage and early widowhood is especially notable for the way it propelled her into new roles as a parent, writer, professor and Christian feminist who struggled with the limits often imposed by the church and its established patterns of leadership. Reading about Wiebe’s struggle to find her own voice and place in the church reminds readers of how important it is to be faithful to God’s call and gifting.

Like Wiebe, Rhoda Janzen has struggled to come to terms with her Mennonite upbringing. She deliberately distanced herself from that tradition and so her account of coming home to spend a sabbatical writing and recovering from surgery and a broken marriage is a story of cultures clashing. With great humor, she reflects on the values of her parents and the community that raised her, eventually coming to realize that she is inextricably tied to these people and their ways. Sometimes it is as hard to come home as it is to leave.

Janzen and Langley both grew up in Fresno, Calif., but offer two very different perspectives on that experience. Where Janzen felt hemmed in by the expectations of her community, Langley found comfort and personal identity. They are like siblings who grew up together but have very different memories of family life.

Langley, now living in Portland, Ore., easily embraces the way her faith was shaped by her family and home church. Framed within the context of a Lenten journey, she explores the challenges of a family life shaped by her husband’s physical disability and the special needs of her children. Langley reminds her readers that living a life of faithfulness to God does not guarantee material abundance. Sometimes, she suggests, the landscape is rough and Christians are called to exhibit the “dogged patience of dusty olive trees” and the “deep-rootedness of low-growing herbs.”

Reading a memoir is a little like peaking in someone’s window. We get a glimpse of someone else’s life. In doing so, we are encouraged to reflect on our lives and choices, as well.

Valerie Rempel lives in Fresno, Calif., and is eagerly waiting to read Jean Janzen’s forthcoming memoir.

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