Memoir Book Review: Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress Reviewed by Shirley H. Showalter

by Matilda Butler on March 17, 2010

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #41 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Review by Shirley H. Showalter

Humor and Memoir: Seven Ways to Leave ’em Laughing

Every life contains the ingredients of tragedy: we are born, we suffer, and we die. This same trajectory can be the source of comedy. The story we have to tell may be dark or light, but the reader will enjoy it more if the tone contains elements of humor and if its tragedy is undergirded by comedy. Many of today’s best memoirists — Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls, Anne Lamott, and Michael Perry, for example — season sad or ordinary narratives with humor. A few — David Sedaris, Dave Barry, and Bill Bryson — aim to make the reader laugh out loud and do so artfully.

Rhoda Janzen has joined the latter ranks as a memoirist-comedienne with her first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Coming Home. In a recent interview with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on the radio show/podcast Writers on Writing, Janzen expressed delighted surprise at the success of a book that details going back to her Mennonite family after the shock of her husband’s departure for a guy named Bob whom he met on A few days later, a young man crashes into her Volkswagen, leaving her with serious physical injuries to add to her emotional/psychological/ spiritual ones. This memoir tells the story of her California sabbatical as she recovers and remembers her past.

Janzen calls the speaking method in her memoir her “email voice.” An accomplished poet and scholar used to a very different writing style, she seems amazed that her private communication manner has found a receptive public audience. Perhaps that intimacy, almost accidental in its construction, gives this book its special sauce — the reader’s shivery sense of eavesdropping on a conversation between sisters or girlfriends.

Those of us writing our own stories can benefit from deconstructing the comedic elements Janzen uses. When does she make us laugh out loud? If some of her jokes splat like a water balloon on a sidewalk, why does that happen?

But first, some caveats:

  • Humor dissection usually kills laughter, so don’t expect to roll on the floor reading this analysis.
  • Humor is subjective. I have my aesthetic, Rhoda Janzen has hers, and you have yours. Let’s see what happens when we try to mix them. This book evokes strong reactions. Those who loved it laughed a lot, reading it with a huge “suspension of disbelief.” Those who hated it accused the author of “mean girl” humor full of “wounding words” much like the ones the author endured from her abusive husband.
  • Because of the above, we can all learn by considering this book’s humor. Readers help writers learn by sharing their reactions and, in the process, understand better the comedy in their own lives. David Letterman draws a belly laugh from the audience only once or twice every show. The rest of the time he gets chuckles, smiles, groans, or silence. If he knew in advance which jokes would get the belly laughs, he might use only those. But then he still would get a variety of responses because each audience is different, and humor finds its own rhythm.

When I reviewed this memoir in November 2009 on my own blog,, it soon gathered 1,500 hits and 70 comments — a testimony to this memoir’s power. I invite you to click on the link above if you are interested in the Mennonite culture questions Janzen raises. And I am delighted to share here seven observations about comedy, Rhoda Janzen’s greatest strength.

1. Context of Contrast

Anyone who grew up in a narrow, ethnic-religious community and leaves it for life in the secular big-city world gains ironic distance, one of the ingredients of comedy. Humor depends heavily on perspective. We peer down on human activity as if looking at ants, and we laugh at the foibles and follies of the human race. The more serious the activity we observe, the more opportunity for humor. The book cover entices the reader with a promised contrast, an Amish covering and a designer dress. The chapter called “A Lingering Finish” illustrates this contrast as the author and her equally urbane sister, Hannah, dissect the Mennonite community while tossing clothing from Hannah’s closet into a Goodwill pile. Comic distance contains a sharp edge, however. Go too far with it, and you lose your own place here on earth along with the other critters, taking on a Godlike role of judgment. The author often begins a chapter with an opportunity for contrast, sometimes slips into condescension, but almost always comes back to a satisfying frisson by chapter’s end.

The recurring treatment of sex and bodily functions allows the author to challenge any expectation that a book about Mennonites will avoid such subjects. In fact, Janzen enjoys contrasting the expected and unexpected within the same sentence: “Cold cuts, like dildos, bring a welcome element of surprise to any family gathering.”

2. Dialect

The Low German language, itself a dialect, is often funny, either because it cannot translate easily into English or because it sounds so different to native English speakers. The chapter called “What the Soldier Made” includes a brilliant compilation of memories related to speaking two languages in childhood. The title relates to a merry little ditty the author’s mother used to share with her children:

Auf den Hügel
Da steht ein Soldat
Er macht in den Hosen

(On the hillside
stood a soldier.
In his pants he made
potato salad.)

This chapter goes on to detail the shame-based foods of the author’s childhood and will cause projectile laughter, even if the reader knows no Low German.

Dialect is an old humor trick. Used widely in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by writers like Mark Twain and Ring Lardner, it too can carry an edge when it shades into racism or cultural superiority. If your story connects to other cultures and languages, you may want to think about stories, songs, and phrases that carry the flavor of the old country in humorous but sensitive ways.

3. Irony/Satire

Irony states one thing while meaning another, which the author does on nearly every page. Here’s an ad she imagines writing about her house: “Gorgeous lakefront property, just an icy commute away on deadly highway!” She uses satire in an appendix called “A Mennonite History Primer” in which she hits some Mennonite sacred cows, such as pacifism and generosity, in the process.

One of the deepest ironies is the way in which the writer resembles the people she satirizes. The two hilarious paragraphs on her mother’s farts could only be written by someone whose mother taught her a healthy disregard of politeness regarding bodily functions. And the theological musings as the book nears its conclusion show that, for all the sophistication (read comic distance) the author has worked so hard to achieve, the apple may not have fallen very far from the Janzen family tree after all. These ironies are the best, because they are not forced on but rather discovered by the reader.

4. Repetition

The phrase “left me for a guy named Bob on” probably appears more than a dozen times in the book. Little witty quizzes also appear more than once, giving a postmodern sense of interaction with the reader as well as self-consciousness about the act of storytelling. Both left me unmoved. Repetition may work best when it is built into the structure of the book like a symphony.

5. Understatement or oxymoron

Janzen can be very droll. I happen to like this form of humor a lot. Often it is a simple matter of word choice. Just one example: “The photographer has captured the dove in all its splendid nullity.”

6. Hyperbole or exaggeration

Often combined with vivid metaphor. Here’s a description of liturgical movement made by three Sunday school teachers dressed in bad white skirts moving in synchronized patterns: “Together these brave ladies would step to the left, then lunge to the right, then lift one arm up like an elephant trunk, gesturing toward the heavens.”

7. List with a twist

Lists can be a source of humor because they set us up to go one direction, but can then be topped off by something or someone unexpected. After enumerating the differences between angels and zombies, Janzen ends this way: “The existence of zombies does not attach to any real historical figure, unless you count Calvin Coolidge.”

I hope my list has convinced you to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and to search in your own writing for humorous ways to connect with the reader. Mark Twain once said, “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand.” Rhoda Janzen finally banished the refrain that her husband left her for a man named Bob on by laughing a lot with her friends, her family, and, eventually, with thousands of readers.

In other words, she participated in this ancient drama: we are born, suffer, and die. But in the moment of laughter, we live forever.

Writing Prompts:

1. Are there any scenes in your house of memory that just by their very contrasting nature make for comedy? Perhaps a very conservatively dressed, spiritual person in a very suggestive, liberal, or materialistic environment? Exaggerate the differences without any self-censorship and write the whole scene from beginning to end.

2. Reviewers of this book seem to divide almost evenly between those who find Rhoda Janzen’s voice self-deprecating and generous, and those who find her narcissistic and cruel. What do you think?

3. Can you exaggerate without creating two-dimensional characters?

4. What is the difference between wit and humor?

5. Is your book a comedy or a tragedy?


Shirley Showalater

Shirley Showalater

Shirley Showalter is vice president-programs at the Fetzer Institute. She is also a blogger at

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