Ella Minnow Pea

A Novel in Letters 

by Mark Dunn

I’ve had this book on my shelf for some two years, but hesitated reading it because well, from some reviews it just sounded too gimicky. It was- and it wasn’t. Very clever the wordplay, plenty of charm and humor throughout and yet how sobering the underlying message. The premise starts out with something rather ridiculous- there’s a small self-governing island where everybody loves language and letter-writing. It was founded by the man who created the famous pangram (a sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. He’s so revered there’s a statue to him with the sentence below in tiles. One day a tile falls off: the letter Z.

The ruling Council declares that this must be a sign from their dead founder, who now wishes them to all quit using the letter Z, whether speaking or writing. The citizens don’t see that as much hardship and go along. But then more letters start to fall, and one after another is banned from use. The Council puts in place serious punishments for those who don’t comply. As the story is told in letters written between some of the island inhabitants, you can see how the restrictions of language starts to make things fall apart. At first people just choose different words to avoid problematic ones- making for sentences full of interesting word choices- I had to look so many up! Then their sentences get less prosaic and descriptive, more brief and to the point. Eventually so many letters are banned they have to substitute numerals, or use creative phonetic spelling (which was a bit tricky to puzzle out in the final pages). Some people outright give up and quit writing at all. Also as the governing Council tightens its control on people you see how they all respond- some quickly report each other for infractions, others band together and help those in need. The library is shut down, schools soon close, people deliberately leave the island, or are forced out- and so other business start to fail as there are fewer customers. Suspicions abound.
However there’s a possible solution- as the original revered pangram was presumed divine simply because it was so unique, if someone can come up with a new sentence using all the letters (without anything superfluous), it will prove the founder wasn’t godlike. (Because at this point, most of the Council were treating it like a religion and getting fanatical about things).
I thought the solution just so clever as the rest of the book- especially how it was discovered (made me laugh though, because the detail it came from was something I’d wondered earlier why it was in the book at all). I didn’t really get a sense of any characters in this story told through letters though- my focus first being what they were saying (especially when I had to figure out the meanings of invented or oddly phonetic words), and the second being what the letters told me about what was happening to the society at large. The individuals, I kind of just glossed over them.

Ella Minnow Pea has been reviewed all over the book blogs. Below is just a sampling:

Rating: 4/5                            208 pages, 2001

7 Responses

  1. What a strange plot that is. Can't say I've ever run into anything remotely like it, so I'll see if my library has it…but they probably won't because libraries seem to have a pretty high turnover rate these days unless the book is by some famous author or became a bestseller when published. Well, we'll see.

  2. It was pretty popular when it first came out- I felt like I was the only one who hadn't read it yet! Will look for your take on it- the wordplay is fun and the degradation of people's lives alarming, if you can just get past the rather ludicrous premise.

  3. Interesting! I'm not sure it would work for me, I don't like unusual spellings or things written phonetically (I have dyslexia, my brain can't wrap around phonic spelling). But the plot sounds good though!–Thistle

  4. The beginning you might enjoy- as it was mostly wordplay with lots of unusual words- but the ending was a bit of a struggle. I had to focus a lot on the last handful of chapters, but I did like it still. I found it quite unique and it had a lot of messages undercurrent about government control and how much people were able to justify and/or follow the ridiculous edicts.

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