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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

April 22, 2012

My boyfriend pressed Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn into my hand seven months ago, and I finally found some time to read it (the darned book club I belong to always reads long books), and I am happy I did. If I were to block quote a line from my review, I’d use “A dessert for language lovers,” because that’s what this book is.

That being said, it isn’t a fulfilling meal. It’s a quick, clever read, but it lacks depth. Characters are stenciled in the pages to fulfill the tricks Dunn pulls, and I didn’t connect with any of them. Nevertheless, I still recommend it. It’s a light-hearted work of fiction that manages to make some important points.

Here’s the run-down: Ella Minnow Pea (if you don’t get the significance, say that name aloud) is a young woman living in Nollop, a tiny autonomous island off the coast of South Carolina. It is named after Nevin Nollop, the guy who invented the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The citizens of Nollop practically worship the guy; a statue with the fabled sentence stands in his honor in the town’s center. One night, “z” falls off, and the Council takes that as a sign that Nollop wants its people to eradicate the letter from speech and writing. This means stiff penalties leading to banishment if it is spoken or written. All literature and signage with the offending letter must be removed from all private and public spaces as well. (Eeek!)

The premise is clever; Dunn creates the story in a series of letters between Ella, her cousin, their mothers, and other family and neighbors. As you can guess, the novel progresses with more oppression as letters continue to fall off the statue. We readers are immersed in this ridiculousness, as the notes written betwixt characters cannot contain the fallen letters. We watch the English language die and see the characters struggle to save it—and their island.

I recommend reading this “novel in letters” (not only is it epistolary, but its about alphabetic letters, see?) because it is so darn clever. Its literary theme is palpable and something we need to remind ourselves: we think English is difficult (what, which all the non-phonetic spellings and borrowed words), but that is what makes it beautiful. If we stripped it to only the practical, we would no longer be capable of properly expressing ourselves. We would have a sad. Dunn shows this as the characters’ communiqué decomposes, and it is impressively effective. Lacking the ability to use e, q, u, c, k, b, f, j, v, z, d, and g, expression is stilted. And it gets worse. Poor people of Nollop! (157):

It is important that we say something to one another—any little thing. We are not low-tier animals. We are higher entities, am I right? Say something. A greeting. Anything.

It is important, as well, that we stay in nearness to one another—not only in the proximital sense—in the sense also as persisters—inheritors. We are all that remains—the ones who maintain the remnants—the Nollop that earlier was.

Retreat is not an option.

My gripe is that the characters never got beyond functional; a few love stories develop, but that seems like an afterthought (one needs that in order to hook the reader). If Dunn did this on purpose (how can you properly express love with only five letters?), then that’s OK, I get it. However, it comes at the expense of real connection, and I can see that turning readers off.

Overall, though, I definitely recommend this read, as it was a swift, cute reminder of how wonderful our language really is. Dunn’s tricks are definitely worth reading.

-KK

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