Reading ‘Mennonite Valley Girl’ with its Mixtape

I lost my best friend.

Wait, no I didn’t. That’s just how I feel right now, because I just finished reading Mennonite Valley Girl. As I read, I felt like author Carla Funk was the older sister I never had but really wanted, back in the 1980s.

When I first heard of this book, I wondered it was written by any of the Carla Funks I’ve known. ‘Tis not. And the valley referenced in the title is not that of the Red River nor Pembina Hills. Rather, it’s a valley literally surrounded by mountains. This is a coming-of-age tale straight out of a town in British Columbia that up until now I haven’t really known much about — Vanderhoof. I’m surprised to learn that Vanderhoof is fraught with Mennonites. It’d be interesting to visit! (Especially that old Mennonite graveyard she mentions in passing.)

In Mennonite Valley Girl, Funk enthusiastically draws us into the world of the 80s. It seems that she’s only very slightly older than I am, and also cooler, obviously. Like, if we’d attended the same school, I get the sense that she would’ve been one of the older teenage girls I’d have looked up to but didn’t actually know. I pictured her with her blonde permed teased hair, baggy pastel shirts, and two amazing best friends, bopping along with her Walkman cassette player.

Pause for a second. The music. The music! Funk weaves the music of her teenage experience in 1980s small-town Canada into the very fabric of this book and I am here for it.

I’ve long wished there could be a suggested playlist for the books I read, and here it is! Thing is, when I found myself holding the book in my hands, I’d forgotten entirely about this musical easter egg — the Spotify playlist entitled Mennonite Valley Girl Mixtape. I only remembered when I sat down to write this post. And now I feel like I “get it” much better, you know? I’m fully immersed in that restless feeling embodied in the writing. Also, I suspect this is the only Spotify playlist with “Mennonite” in the title, serving up just one Bible-y song (Sing Unto the Lamb by Whiteheart),a hilarious wink at a common tactic used by evangelical Christian teens of the 80s in justifying rock ‘n’ roll to the ‘rents: “But it’s Christian!”

Funk takes us inside each of her experiences quite intimately, and throughout my binge-reading session, I felt bonded to the teenage Carla Funk of the 1980s. It felt kind of like reading her diary, or a very long letter from a faraway friend with a penchant for extreme letter writing (oh hi, wait, that was me). It also felt like a glimpse into the private life of a girl living in a parallel universe — one that has much in common with my home region (all those Mennonites! all those teenagers who find their hometowns so boring! all those boys with sketchy moustaches meeting in parking lots and staring at girls!) yet at the same time is so vastly different (all those mountains! a dad who’s in the logging industry, not farming!). Spending this time with Funk through these pages, in reading about her experiences with religion, boys, different types of Mennonites, 80s-era weight loss industry, pop culture, and her hometown, made me think of my own.

I will say that the Bible verses between the chapters didn’t really land for me. I felt like the publisher just did a bit of keyword searching “valley” in an online Bible app and called it a day. It didn’t connect with or reinforce the story for me, anyway.

Also, I felt like the whole “flame” theme didn’t really go anywhere, though this might simply be a reflection of my tendency to only understand extremes — I expected something massively explosive to occur as a result of this simmering flame situation. Maybe I’m dense, but it seemed to me that her beautiful friend was raped that night on the lawn, but I guess that’s someone else’s story and this is the trickiness of writing a memoir — we’re all so connected. And the driveway fire thing — how did that not result in a famous B.C. massive scale forest fire?

How about that chapter on writing for the local paper? So good! I found her sarcastic newsy snippets in this section super amusing and I wanted to read more. The Bible camp chapter elicited memories of my own, melding them with hers. But how about the story about that girl’s tongue-hair? That’s some seriously unique detail.

Funk’s treatment of her father in this memoir is honest and haunting, tinged with remorse. I felt that she balanced truth and tenderness here. The way that he may have fallen short as a father, and she in turn fell short as a teenage daughter — and the forces that pulled them apart.

Growing up can be an aching experience, and Funk really takes us into the whole 1980s smalltown Canadiana Mennonite experience. When combined with the music (if you can find it), it all becomes pretty cinematic and I want more.

I may be sad about having finished reading Mennonite Valley Girl, but my time with author Carla Funk doesn’t need to be over. Time to find Every Little Scrap and Wonder.

Only somewhat related:

5 Manitoba Mennonite Books to Read for ‘Banned Books Week’!

What’s “Mennonite Music” Anyway?