Happy October everyone! It’s the first Wednesday of the month which means it’s book review day. Today’s pick: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. This book came out in 2001 and I first read it back in college. It made a deep enough impression on me that I recently recommended it for a book group and reread it a few weeks ago.
About the story:
Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, meaning it’s composed of letters from one character to another. Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop, located off the coastline of South Carolina and named after Nevin Nollop who has been immortalized by his creation of a phrase using all 26 letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
What’s unique about this island is that due to poor infrastructure, they are isolated from the modern world. There aren’t computers, internet, email, or even telephone service, although those on the island know all these things exist. To communicate long distance, they are limited to letters and the occasional telegraph. Because of this, they’ve developed a love and passion for the written word and a unusual eloquence.
When letters begin falling off the memorial statue to Nevin Nollop, the island Council deems that it is a divine mandate from Nollop himself and they must stop using those letters in everyday speech and the written word. This also means those letters drop out of use for the remainder of the book. With each loss, the island falls deeper and deeper into totalitarianism as the Council works to eliminate those who would use the illegal letters.
Ella finds herself fighting to save her friends and family from being banished off of the island, a task that grows more complicated with new letter’s loss.
As a lover of artful use of language, this book delights on so many levels. Ella tries so hard to maintain her eloquence and love of language, even as each letter is taken away. The resulting linguistic gymnastics are impressive to say the least. It made me wonder if I could do the same. I tried it with the letter “m” thinking it would be easy. In a 15 minute sample where I tried my best to be careful, three “m”s still managed to find their way in.
There is also the element of satire about an overreaching government seeking punitive punishments for violators of the new rules as well as what happens when a society must adapt to censorship. For me, this felt almost Orwellian and brought back of not-so-fond memories of the discomfort of being forced to read 1984 in school, mixed with a touch of Lord of the Flies. However, Dunn encapsulates this satire inside the story of those trying to live the new rules and because their story shines stronger than the satire, it makes it much more palatable.
By the end of the story when only handful of letters are left, the text becomes almost unintelligible. Letters are swapped out for phonetic matches and to understand what’s being said, the reader almost has to say the syllables out loud. For me, it brilliantly demonstrated the frustrations of the main characters as they struggle to communicate.
In all, I found the book delightful and both a fun and profound read.
I recommend this book to those who love a good play on words and appreciate vocabulary and wordsmithing, as well as those who love seeing how a society can go wrong. Those who love word puzzles will also get a kick out of seeing how each character manages to avoid using banned letters. It’s also a charming story of making the best of a hard situation that doesn’t dwell on the ugliness that could be found there.
I would not recommend this book for those who want an easy read. It is not. From the deeply vocab-u-tastic wordiness at the beginning, to the almost alien constructed language nearing the end, this book is challenging. I also would recommend those who are sensitive to political misuse of power to steer clear as this book might be triggering.
I give Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea 4.5 stars.
Psst! Jodi here. Did you enjoy today’s review? Did it help you decide if this book was for you? Cool, eh?
It doesn’t have to be big and long like this one – a few sentences is perfect! Thanks in advance!