Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

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!)

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Ella Minnow Pea on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on December 4, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I think I read this one more lightly than you did and didn’t think to much about a lot of the great points you brought up.  I liked how the book became harder and harder to read as more letters were lost.  It makes you realize how much we use all the letters of the alphabet and how used to them we are.   After finishing, I closed the book, looked at the cover and thought “Oh! L,  M, N, O, P!”  Sometimes I feel like an idiot!  😉

  • Kathy, yes, quirky was the word they used on the cover of the book, but I think it quite appropriate.

    Natasha, my mom’s book club decided not to read it because they didn’t think there was enough in it! I couldn’t believe that! I thought it was full of  making fun: of religion, of “dystopias.” But yes, it is a light read and I don’t think it’s necessary to read “in to it.” But I think finding connections makes it fun!

  • Sounds interesting! I’m a big non-sci-fi dystopia fan.

    Okay, I must be blind – I can’t see the “s” in that panagram! I’m a dork, I had to go check for each letter, and some were harder to see than the others, but I can’t find the “s” at all.  Grr.  I’ll have to see if I can come up with one of my own panagrams.

    I’d say the k is rarely important in our language. You can pretty much substitute c for any place that k goes.  Okay maybe not, but if I had to pick a letter to get rid of, the k would be it.  It’s the ugliest color in the alphabet anyway.

  • Amanda, ha ha and oops, I typed it wrong! Nollop himself would be quite displeased with me. I’d probably be banished from the island of Nollop. Nice noticing. Should be “jumps“. I fixed it.

    As for the story-as-a-dystopia, like Natasha said, it could be completely ignored in this book and the book could be enjoyed as just a fun story. Probably most people that read this book will roll their eyes and think I’m reading too much into it. But really, I thought it was a utopia-going-wrong, which by definition, would be dystopia of some kind, right?

    I think I’d be sad to loose k. I personally think it’s a prettier letter than c in names like “Katherine.” I must have known a mean “Catherine” in grade school or something.

  • I’m synesthetic, with color-grapheme synesthesia, and other that “u” and “y” (which have lost all color, sadly), “k” is the ugliest letter.  It’s a dull brownish yellow.  So my opinion is completely based on nothing at all, haha!

  • I read this book a while ago and loved it. I thought the characters were a bit dull and 2-D. I think that worked for the novel though, in that this time of political dominance could happen to anyone, anywhere. This book does require a dictionary nearby though, I had to look up a lot of the words towards the end of the book!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}