Newest Review: ... 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 ... more
Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn
Member Name: Cosmokat
Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn
Date: 07/10/09, updated on 08/10/09 (157 review reads)
Advantages: Original and thought provoking
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.
Summary: An impressive achievement