Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Ella Minnow Pea

    February 2, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Some time ago, maybe even a year, a couple people suggested Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea in the comments, hinting that they thought I would like it. {I think the infamous Uncle MPL was one of these people.} I instantly put it on the PaperBackSwap list, and it really didn’t take very long for a copy to come my way.

    But it did take long for me to settle down and read it.

    This weekend, Si and I did something that we used to do far more often, and that is read a book aloud together. We read for literally hours, starting it Friday evening and ending it right before Baby O.’s dream feed at 10:30 Saturday evening.

    We loved this book.

    First of all, it is clever. It really is. Let me quote the back of the book:

    Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

    Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression and a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

    Mr. Dunn is, first and foremost, a playwright rather than a traditional author. Playwrights have methods of using language that tend to be unique to their kind, and that carries over into this book, making it a delight to read. Dunn also has an evident love for language, and the book is a playful reflection of this.

    I can’t really find anything bad to say about this book. It is short, to the point, and unique in that the entire book is made up of letters written from one character to another. I wondered how someone could pull off a plot using this means, but Dunn does this very well.

    If you are at all interested in a somewhat dystopian novel that isn’t dark like 1984 or Brave New World and yet hints at similar themes, especially language control and the significance of freedom of speech, Ella Minnow Pea is for you.

    Now, a little about the plot. I’ll try not to spoil it for you.

    The first letter to drop from the statue {and hence from the language of the Nollopian people} is Z. Dunn does a wonderful job of contrasting a small perspective, which sees only today, with a large perspective which sees many {but not all, for only God can see all} ramifications of the Island Council’s interpretation of and legislative response to events. Our heroine Ella writes to her cousin Tassie:

    “[W]ith the exception of the use of the letter in reference to itself and its employment in the word “lazy” affixed in permanence to its partner “dog,” I have, in scanning the test of my epistle to you thus far, discovered only three merest of uses: in the words “gaze,” immortalized,” and “snooze.” Would you have lost my meaning should I have chosen to make the substitutions, “looked,” “posteritified,” and “sleep”? What, my dearest Tassie, have we then lost? Very little. And please note that a new word would have been gained {posteritified} in the process! Perhaps I may actually grow to embrace this challenge as others, no doubt, are preparing to do themselves.

    Though it is nice to see our heroine think on the bright side and find that proverbial silver lining, she fails {only this once, by the way} to see the big picture. Tassie promptly corrects her:

    Such an act as that presently being perpetrated on the people of this good island by our esteemed High Island Council is beyond diabolical. “Cautious initial fealty”? Have you not even considered all the consequences of losing this “funny little letter”? My friend Rachalle, who inherited our small village library with the passing of Mrs. Redfern, reminds me that with the prohibition, the reading of all books containing the unfortunate letter will have to be outlawed as well. There are, I would surmise, few, if any, volumes upon those biblio-shelves that do not contain it.

    The Council, in its ridiculous wisdom, will be assigning to dust bins and community pyres centuries of the finest examples of sapience and sagacity–volume upon volume of history, literature, and thought promulgated through the medium of this cherished language of kings and knaves, scholars and clowns…

    I had to stop and laugh when I first read this. Is this not akin to the CPSIA incident? When the phrase “for the children” became so blown out of perspective that new legislation failed to consider the existence of handcrafters and cottage industries? That, with the sweeping use of the word “all” in reference to “all children’s products” there will soon be difficulty in attaining proper and approved microscopes for fifth and sixth grade classrooms?

    The Council’s “ridiculous wisdom” indeed!

    This book also reminded me of something the DHM wrote last week:

    You know what amazes me? How often people start with the assumption that if the government passed a law, it must be reasonable.

    Ella, in her first letter, writes:

    And yet, truly, there are moments–brief moments–in which I entertain the thought that perhaps there may exist some thin thread of likelihood that the Council may have correctly read the event. That as ludicrous, as preposterous as it seems, the fallen tile may indeed be communication from our most honored and revered Mr. Nollop. Nevin Nollop may, in fact, be telling us exactly what the Council singularly believes {for I understand the five members to be clearly of one mind in their belief}.

    Other characters in the story, the Towgate family, are firm believers. Nash Towgate writes:

    We believe, Miss Purcy, as you obviously do not, that there is full cause and merit to the statutes recently passed by the Island Council. We believe, further, that Nollop does indeed speak to us from his place of eternal rest, through the manipulation of the tiles upon his hallowed cenotaph, and that the Council serves only as his collective interpreter.

    His wife, Georgeanne, agrees and, by the way, meets a frightful {and repentant} end.

    For a cheerful combat against tyranny, I highly suggest Ella Minnow Pea.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit

    1 Comment

  • Reply Rahime February 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Looks like a good one. I’m adding it to my PBswap list now. Thanks!

  • Leave a Reply