Whichever way you look at it, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is an intelligent and refreshing read, which doesn't take itself too seriously, but tackles some serious issues nevertheless.
Ella Minnow Pea is told via letters that characters are writing to each other, which is poignant since the book is full of wordplay and is, essentially, about letters- the kind you write to make words. Confused? Well that's all part of the story!
The extremely literary society in which the story is based has a single hero: Nevin Nollop, who created the pangram 'the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog'. As someone who has studied and taught English for many years, I can really relate to the humour of this. The celebrated sentence uses all the letters of the alphabet and is therefore hailed as genius in the world of English education too- it is used with students to help them practice joining up all the letters of the alphabet, for tests used to determine whether a student may be dyslexic, and other things.
Ella is the main character, and she objects to the censorship of letters in her society. As letters fall off the pangram on Nollop's statue, the citizens are told to stop using them also. Therefore each chapter of letters begins to demonstrate the loss of one or two letters at a time, which I imagine Dunn had a lot of fun and frustration writing. Eventually the society ends up with only the letters L, M, N, O and P - which also make Ella's name, when considered phonetically, and therefore also the title of the book.
I think Ella Minnow Pea is a bit like a comical version of Fahrenheit 451, but in reverse. I kept expecting the plot to turn into heavy drama reminiscent of Orwell, but the tone stayed light while dealing with issues of censorship and social constraints, and the overall feel of the book is also light.
There is much clever wordplay in this book, and there is no doubt that Dunn himself was a literary genius in his own right. I have not read anything quite like Ella Minnow Pea before - it really is a refreshing read, witty and humorous throughout, and I definitely recommend it.
Mark Dunn's first novel, Ella Minnow Pea is introduced to us as 'A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable'. I have just read it for the second time and found it charming, frightening, clever, playful, thoughtful and inspiring all at once.
The story is told through written correspondence, mostly between cousins Ella and Tassie, but also those of various other characters and sometimes even notes left for each other pinned to a fridge. The action takes place on the fictional island of Nollop, an independent Country 21 miles Southeast of South Carolina.
Nevin Nollop, former islander, is hailed as the creator of the pangram sentence 'the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog', and revered for this by the inhabitants, whose national art form is language use. As such the bulk of the letters are elegantly constructed with an extensive vocabulary. Life in the peaceful community is disrupted when a statue of Nollop begins to decay and the tiled letters of his pangram start to fall from their mounts one by one. Eventually, l, m, n, o, p are all that remain. The governing council interpret the fallen letters as decrees from the long-dead Nollop to cease use of the letters in question.
The first letter to go is 'z'. Although many feel life without 'z' will not be such a hardship, Tassie sees the potential ramifications of this censorship, questioning the impact on the village library and the loss of freedom of the people to communicate. Nollop is somewhat cut off from the modern world, with minimal electronic technology, and she fears the mindset of 'Island Medievalism'. Ella, too, is fearful when she considers the penalties announced by the Council for use of the illegal letter; a public reprimand for a first offence, a choice between flogging or the stocks for a second offence, and banishment for a third with execution the punishment for any who refuses to leave.
Island life deteriorates as the people's ability to enjoy relationships, do business, and live without fear of their government grows more and more restricted as the letters fall. Mark Dunn explores the effects of such social control and does so within the boundaries he sets for his characters. He continues to write beautifully without the use of z, then q, j, d and so on. This is clearly a man who loves language and playing with words. The writing of this novel must have been an enormous challenge just considering it's structure.
On the down side, this can come across as a bit of a gimmick. Towards the very end of the novel following the meaning of the words takes more effort as the use of language is so restricted and is written phonetically. Although I finished this last night in an airport and was very tired so this might not have been the best time! The main accomplishment of the style of writing for me is the sense of loss it conveys. The fluid letter writing at the start expresses much joy of language use by Nollopians and their crippled sentences toward the end is quite heartbreaking. For instance, Tassie describes the banishment of a young man; 'While his father pleaded to the LEB thug-uglies to ignore young William's boldly insolent hurlatory, to William's mother fell the difficult task of propelling her son with every ounce of maternal passion onto the boat that would serve both as his transport to permanent exile, and, paradoxically, the very instrument of his survival.' Later, Ella writes; 'It is a strange worlt we resite in, is it not' (It is a strange world we reside in...).
I like the simplicity of the idea behind this novel, and its allegorical feel. It raises important questions about some of the most relevant concerns of societies in today's world. Social control, censorship, civil rights, political rebellion and religious conformity are all up for discussion. The irrationality of the interpretation of the fallen letter tiles progresses to full-scale institutional insanity. Nollop is gradually promoted to a fully Omnipotent Supreme Being and the welfare of human citizens grows less and less significant.
The telling of the tale through personal letters works as more than a device to explore the boundaries of the English language. It allows the reader to see the personal effects of the constraints. Through a couple of notes left by Ella's parents to each other we feel a sense of the warm and loving relationship they share, and learn how the strains of the new laws break this down. Neighbours inform on and become afraid of each other, but also people form new alliances through their mutual hardships.
In summary, I found the characters engaging and likeable, and I cared about their personal struggle. I enjoyed the imaginative and unusual approach to writing and thought Mark Dunn examined some very interesting social subjects.
As part of my job I like to keep up to date on the books people are talking about, or are GOING to be talking about. When a colleague told us about Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn at a staff meeting, I was intrigued and had to order it to check it out for myself.
This is the tale of a girl called Ella, who lives on the island of Nollop. The island is named after Nevin Nollop ~ a kind of demi-god to the people. Nevin left the islanders a legacy; a pangram which uses every letter of the alphabet ~ "THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG". These words are immortalized on a stone tablet under a statue of the great Mr Nollop. Ella is happy on her island!
The problems begin when the years cause the statue and pangram to weather and letters start to fall off. The Council on the Island rule that this is some sort of sign from Nollop and that any letters missing from the pangram must not be used again.
To begin with it isn't too much of a hardship ~ How many times do we use the letter Z anyway? It is as the letters diminish that the language gets more complicated and the Island Council start to get more and more strict with the Nollopians ~ punishments are severe and the persistent usage of banned letters will eventually result in death!
~~~WHAT I THOUGHT.
Ella Minnow Pea is very much a novel for people who are interested in words and language. Even Ella's name is a play on the letters that make up our alphabet ~ L, M, N, O and P. It is all based around words and language and the way we use them in our lives. The book itself is made up of letters and notes passing between the villagers and friends. It is also a warning as to what could happen when rules and laws go mad and or carried too far.
Curbing the way the Nollopians speak and write causes conflict and harsh justice ~ perhaps showing us that we shouldn't take censorship and the way we try to influence how people express themselves too far! As more letters are removed from the available vocabulary, silence begins to threaten the Island and Ella must fight for those she cares about. It becomes harder to make sentences, harder to express yourself and harder to think of things to say.
The book is funny in places and quite sad in others. Ella is engaged in a struggle for the right to self expression and also to save her family from the wrath of the Council. She also has a sense of humour and a love for her family and Island that is quite touching.
The language used is witty although sometimes it has the tendency to be a little TOO wordy. Sometimes there are words that I don't event think exist and sentences that can baffle!
"the fall of the tile bearing the letter "Z" constitutes the terrestrial manifestation of an empyrean Nollopian desire, that desire most surely being that the letter "Z" should be utterly excised-fully extirpated-absolutively heave-ho'ed from our communal vocabulary!"
..See what I mean? Mind you, it isn't surprising because the letters and notes have to cope with more and more restrictions. Dunn gets more creative as he has to drop letters from use ~ he cleverly manages to express things without using the letters that have fallen from Nollop's statue.
Despite the wordiness I rather liked Ella, which helped me identify with her struggle. She is bright, chatty and able to express herself well. I think if I hadn't taken to her I maybe wouldn't have enjoyed the book so much.
I also found that reading Ella Minnow Pea made me think of the way I speak and write. How would I manage if I suddenly was banned from using the letters T or E? Could I communicate with others if I wasn't allowed to use the letter A? A couple of months ago we had a dogdy keyboard on our PC and had to manage for a few days without the letter N - that was annoying!
Words are as important to me as they are to Ella ~ but, like her, I didn't realise quite HOW important until the freedom to use these letters was taken away.
Books are burned and newspapers can no longer be produced because the letters contained in them are illegal. Islanders are flogged, put in stocks and punished for just using the wrong letters in public. The whole world of Nollop has gone mad and Ella and the rest of her people must fight back in order to preserve their society.
Even the Nollopians way of fighting back is with the use of words ~ aided by Nate Warren (a researcher from South Carolina) they decide to create a new shorter and snappier pangram to replace Nollop's original. It is hoped that they can do this before society breaks down all together and will restore their world. You'll have to read it to find out how they get on because I'm not going to tell you!!
I recommend Ella Minnow Pea to anyone who likes a creative and challenging read. I advise you to give it a try and then think how you would cope if you had to write and speak with the restrictions placed on you by the banning of letters. Don't be put off by the long words and language ~ instead concentrate on the humour and the sentiment behind the story and you will "get it"!
It is clever, funny and a little bit different! It is also one of my favourite books of the year so far!
Paperback 224 pages (July 3, 2003)
Publisher: Methuen Publishing Ltd
I borrowed my copy from the library but it can currently be purchased on Amazon for £5.59 ~ a saving of £1.40 on the cover price of £6.99.
Nevin Nollop left the islanders of Nollop with the treasured legacy of his pangram the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. But as the letters begin to crumble on the monumental inscription, the island's council forbids the use of the lost letters and silence threatens Ella and her family.