Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn has the apt subtitle “A Novel in Letters.” Through a series of epistles between friends and family members, we learn of the tragedy most recently befalling (literally) the fictional small island-country of Nollop.
The tragedy is this: Slowly but surely, the letters are falling off of the national memorial:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Unfortunately for Ella and her friends, the local government believes that this is a sign from the God-like Nevin Nollop, the native-son who created the pangram (the sentence above, which uses each letter of the alphabet). Therefore, when the first letter falls, it is decreed that no one in Nollop is to implement said letter in speech or in writing: Nollop himself is challenging the citizens of the country from beyond the grave to better express themselves.
Fortunately, that letter is “z.” No one will miss “z,” will they? But when the “Q” and “D” and “J” also fall, writing and speaking to each other becomes a little more difficult.
At first glance, Ella Minnow Pea is what you’re probably thinking:
A quirky novel with pages of zany, jumbled lexicon.
But at second glance, this is a story of a dystopia, and a reminder to all word-lovers of the significance and influence of each letter, A to Z.
Ella Minnow Pea has its faults (limited setting; predictable plot development; superficial characterization). But I believe it meets its goal (satiric commentary on religion and totalitarian dystopias) in a delightful way that resonates with me, a word-lover.
One of the reviews on the back cover of the book calls Ella Minnow Pea a “satire of human foibles, and a light-stepping commentary on censorship and totalitarianism.” So it’s a good thing I defined satire a few weeks ago; now I can actually recognize it as such!
Of what, then, is Ella Minnow Pea suggesting a remodeling, through its humor and wit? I think it’s suggesting that religionists get a little overboard with attributing things to “divine will.” It’s also suggesting that governments take on too much power, as this should never have been a “governmental” issue.
But Ella Minnow Pea is also a commentary on freedom of speech, on censorship, and on how quickly a heaven-on-earth can change into a totalitarian state, once those freedoms are gone. What freedoms do we take for granted? More specifically, what letters do we take for granted?
All that said, Ella Minnow Pea is “zany.” It’s fun. And, if you like and appreciate words, it’s full of fun language that plays with words. It helps you see how we need each and every letter: we use them all all of the time.
One person is banished for using a “d” in her letter. I had to read the letter three times to find the “d.” It was interesting to see how quickly my eyes pass over it, how easily we take each letter for granted.
I think I’d personally be most sad to lose the letter “R.” I couldn’t say my R’s until first grade (thank you Speech Teacher!), and so I guess I want to keep the wonderful sound in my repertoire. Not only is “R” an imperative part of my first, middle, and last names, but it’s so much fun to roll, especially in Spanish: “Relámpagos!”
I suppose I would be least sad to see “Z” go. We could start spelling many words with an “S” as they do in the British Commonwealth and substituting an “S” in other places.
What letter do you most appreciate? Which letter could you do without? Can you write your own pangram? (It’s harder than you think!)
If you have reviewed Ella Minnow Pea on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.