Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

Book Review of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

First published in 2001 and reprinted many times,  this remarkable book consists of a series of letters written by Ella Minnow Pea,  addressed to her cousin and other relatives and friends from her home on the small island of Nollop, which is located in the Atlantic, 21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina.   

The island is fictional of course, and is independent of the United States and governed by an autocratic Island Council.  At the centre of the town, stands a cenotaph built in honour of Nevin Nollop, and bearing the inscription “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog“.  Apparently Nevin Nollop invented this pangram (a sentence containing all the letters of the alphabet) and it seems to be the town’s only claim to fame.

One day, a tile containing the letter “Z” falls from the tower and smashes on the ground – after all, the tiles have been affixed to the tower for 100 years and the adhesive must be wearing thin.  Far from taking the obvious step of sticking the tile back on the tower, the Council meets and after two days deliberation decided that the descent of the letter Z is a sign from the long-deceased Nevin Nollop that the letter Z must be utterly excised from the town’s communal vocabulary.  

These events are described in Ella’s first letter to her cousin Tassie and readers will notice that it contains not a single letter Z (by the way, I learned from Wikipedia that the term for this type of writing, where letters are dropped from the alphabet, is lipogram).

As Ella continues her correspondence we learn more about this strange island and its ways.  It seems to be stuck in a time warp, and while mainland USA, a mere 21 miles away has developed into a thrusting modern economy, the leaders of Nollop have decided to avoid modern technology as much as possible and to devote the island to the persuit liberal arts and education.

Within a few days, the deficiencies in the tile adhesive manifest themselves again and this time the letter Q falls from the cenotaph.  The Council are now committed to their less than obvious explanation for this fall and meet again with the inevitable result:  

Q is to be excised from the alphabet.  Poor Ella writes again to her cousin.  We also read various other letters, many covering the controversial decisions to cull the alphabet, and even the new penalties for using non-Nollopian letters. At this stage the letters read fairly normally, but I don’t need to explain that before long more letters are fall to the ground.

By the time the “quick brown fox” pangram reads “Th* **i** *r*wn *ox **mps o**r the la*y **g we are in some trouble!  One of the letters in this chapter reads –

My mother’s sister – the one thee wants – is gone.  She went with her she-heir Tassie to the States.  Tassie was in prison.  The reason:  She sent threats to the High Priests.  They arrest her.  She is happily no longer there.  Alas, neither is the one thee wants.  This is, permit me to relate, why it was important that she exit they hamlet so hastily.  Not the one she imagines.   We eat together tonight, yes?  Two lonely amigas.  I await thee.  Ella

I won’t quote subsequent letters – I think my readers will get the drift.

This book is not as simple as it may seem.  The letters reveal a complex and fascinating society, English-speaking but very different to any other country in the world, due to its isolation.  

Mark Dunn has written a book which is interesting on many levels – the way language operates, how a society may develop when cut off from the mainstream, the way in which power can end up in the hands of those who are most unqualified.

Eventually a resolution is found to the conundrum – a test is set for the citizens and if they solve it their alphabet may be restored.  Will they crack the code, or be forever condemned to write incomprehensible notes to each other in signs and symbols?

While this is one of the most intriguing books I have read, Ella Minnow Pea is above all very funny.  I’ve read it several times now and it never ceases to amuse.  I’m pleased to be writing about it and I think this book should be on the shelves of any one interested in language.  I am certain that they will find it an unusual and fascinating read.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t noticed (and it took me some time to), the name Ella Minnow Pea comes from the alphabetic sequence L M N O P.

Book Details

Title:  Ella Minnow Pea

Author:  Mark Dunn

Publication: Methuen (2003), Paperback 224 pages

ISBN:  9780413772954