Book Review | Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
– Ruth Susan Joseph
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The book is set on the fictional island of Nollop, named after the idolized Nevin Nollop, the fictitious creator of this widely known pangram. This book is referred to as a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. To break that down, lipogrammatic means writing something while omitting a certain alphabet, and epistolary means a book written in the form of letters.
Ella Minnow Pea is a book that is absolutely full of wordplay and is sure to delight word lovers everywhere. The book is read as a set of letters between Ella, the protagonist, and her cousin Tassie as they try to navigate the situation the town has fallen into. The Town Council keeps outlawing certain alphabets, believing that Nevin Nollop is sending them signs from beyond the grave telling them to stop using these alphabets.
Ella Minnow Pea (that’s right, L-M-N-O-P) decides that if the idolization of Nollop was because of his 32 letter pangram, then he can be dethroned by a pangram that has more brevity. This births ‘Enterprise Thirty-Two’, with the objective of creating a new pangram with no more than 32 alphabets. But note, all of this planning takes place via letters written by Ella and her cousin, in a town of people who love language, and love to write. The genius of this book is that as each alphabet is dropped, the author is also constrained, as the entire story is written from the perspective of those who live under this censorship.
Mark Dunn, born in 1956, published this book in 2001. He is an American playwright and author who has thirty plays and seven books to his name. His book, Ella Minnow Pea, is built on an idea reminiscent of Georges Perec’s “A Void”, a novel written without the letter “e”. Dunn took this a step further and portrayed the slow loss of alphabets, building desperation, all wrapped into a neat and hilarious box of a novel.
Ella Minnow Pea is a sort of dystopian fiction, set on an island off the coast of South Carolina, subject to oppressive rule. The citizens lose their privacy as their letters are read to make sure nobody breaks the law. Books are burned, libraries are shut, and people are not even allowed to say words that contain the banned alphabets. Should they break the law, they are subject to banishment, or even death.
It is a political satire, wherein the freedom of expression of people is slowly restrained, one alphabet at a time. Ella never gives up, and her letters soon become difficult to comprehend, full of substitute words and missing alphabets, until there is a breakthrough. Ella represents the rebel, the one who changes the system from the inside but appears to be accepting of oppression on the outside.
This book is a truly enjoyable read, and it is one that beautifully mixes playful and real. The characters come alive even as their language is taken away from them, and we are able to relate to their struggles. I enjoyed how the story flowed, and how it keeps you at the edge of your seat. The breakthrough at the end is so very satisfactory. Ella’s perseverance, and refusal to accept the censorship is amazing to watch, and the author’s ability to balance great characterization with a difficult concept is perfect.
This book delivers exactly what you think it will, and is perfectly executed. The realization that you’ve just read pages of words that did not use the letter “D” even once, that realization is unmatched. I found myself going back and combing through the book to confirm that Dunn was doing such a spectacular job.
I highly recommend this book, for young and old alike. For those who aren’t looking to read something so deeply satirical, the book is still an enjoyable read and is one that will stay with you. For those who like to find hidden implications, the subtle representations of oppressive rule, rebellion, and the insistence on changing the system will surely scratch that itch for you.