Book review: ‘Mennonite on the Edge’
In 2004, Cynthia Yoder broke new ground in Mennonite letters with Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life. The memoir, one of the first of its kind written by a Mennonite, detailed the debilitating depression that compelled Yoder to leave her husband and life in New York City and return to her roots by moving to her grandparents’ home in rural Pennsylvania. Yoder’s candid and at times heart-breaking book traced her search for self and her struggle with a mental illness diagnosis; the memoir’s end suggested Yoder had reconciled her past and her present, finding comfort in the disparate strands of her life, especially her Mennonite roots and her present identity in the city.
There are many ways in which Yoder’s first novel, Mennonite on the Edge, covers this familiar ground. Those who have read Yoder’s memoir might recognize similar themes unfolding in Mennonite on the Edge, especially in terms of the protagonist’s struggle to discover where (and with what people) she belongs.
Still, readers may find outlined in Yoder’s novel a number of tensions with which they can resonate. Perhaps more significantly, the authenticity of Yoder’s “unlikely romance” sets her work apart from the other Amish (and Mennonite) romances, written by people outside the faith who can only guess at what it might mean to lose, and then find, a deep, fulfilling relationship to a Mennonite past.
Mennonite on the Edge tells the story of MaryJo, a 20-something woman who is married to Adam and lives in Manhattan, where they both lead what seems a typical urban lifestyle, at least initially. MaryJo’s job, while not wholly fulfilling, helps fund their lives, as does Adam’s; they enjoy their friendships with other like-minded city-dwellers; they take in the nightlife New York City provides.
The setting in Manhattan is nicely juxtaposed against the bucolic world of MaryJo’s upbringing in Lancaster County, Pa. Early chapters tell us that MaryJo has moved to the city to escape, in great part, all that Lancaster County symbolizes: her Mennonite past and its austere, rules-driven culture, certainly. But Lancaster County is also the place where MaryJo experienced an abusive high school relationship with Lonnie, and memories of Lonnie make her relationship to Lancaster even more complicated.
The conflict that unwinds for much of the book will be one with which many readers can resonate, as MaryJo tries to navigate the potential conflicts that emerge between her Mennonite identity and other parts of her self. For despite moving to the big city, trying to let go of her past, and becoming a “card-carrying liberated woman,” MaryJo discovers that releasing her Mennonite Pennsylvania Dutch identity isn’t so easy after all, even after making the choice to withdraw her membership from Lancaster Mennonite Church.
The novel’s plot moves forward with MaryJo uncomfortably straddling two worlds and feeling increasingly unmoored in New York City and in her marriage. She decides that a return to Lancaster County might help ground her and that she needs to “take a break from this cement and glass monolith of an island” in order to figure out who she is apart from her husband and all the accouterments of city living. MaryJo checks into a bed and breakfast near her parents’ home and begins the hard work of finding peace with herself.
Of course, we can never go home again, something MaryJo discovers during her month’s break from New York, Adam and the vagaries of an unfulfilling vocation. MaryJo reconnects with her childhood community, visiting an Amish market, eating shoofly pie, visiting the haunts of her past. She takes walks in nature and writes poetry, ultimately realizing she is not wholly at peace in this space, either, especially with her husband still working in the city.
Yoder does well at creating empathy for MaryJo’s predicament, especially when she decides Lancaster will ground her more than New York will. But when Adam lands an important job in the city, MaryJo must make a difficult choice about whether she will stay with her people in Lancaster County or with Adam in a place that never feels like home. Resolution for MaryJo does not come easily, though readers will finish Mennonite on the Edge assured that all is well for MaryJo, or will be.
As in her memoir, Yoder provides an unalloyed view of Mennonite culture, setting her novel apart from the many popular Amish and Mennonite romances flooding the Christian book marketplace. Taken together, both Mennonite on the Edge and Crazy Quilt articulate conflicts with which many readers, straddling the worlds of Mennonite faith and modernity, will be familiar. And, the novel’s conclusion suggests that while no easy resolution to these conflicts exist, we can still settle into the unknown, into the moment, and into the love we share with others.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.
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