Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel In Letters By Mark Dunn
A brainwavez.org Literary Review

United States of America By: Jase Luttrell on 16 March 2010
Category: Books > Reviews
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Ella Minnow Pea was first published in 2001 and it amazes me to think that I have lived nearly a decade without this book. I promise you'll find a nerdy love for words, language, and the processes of language construction in Mark Dunn's beautiful little novel. You'll enjoy every letter (especially the missing ones).

Ella Minnow Pea By Mark DunnElla Minnow Pea is a near-perfect parody of a totalitarian organisation's rule over nearly all aspects of citizen life, with dramatic and frightening consequences. This farcical romp through the imaginative island nation of Nollop, named after Nevin Nollop, the (fictional) creator of the pangram "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is vaguely reminiscent of another favourite book of mine, Kenneth J Harvey's The Town That Forgot How To Breathe, in the regard that both novels take a basic need (language and breathing, respectively), and remove it from the abilities of the characters. Certainly breathing is very important, however it is language and communication that maintains our humanity and it is this philosophical inquiry in Dunn's novel that is truly mesmerising, and in many instances, terrifying.

In Nollopton, the capital of Nollop, a statue of Nevin Nollop stands, his creative saying portrayed letter-by-letter on separate tiles. Within a matter of months, the tiles fall from the statue (the glue adhesive comes apart... that's the theory; the High Council won't let anyone interfere with the will of Nevin Nollop, though he's dead), shatter on the ground, and the Island High Council determines (and decrees) that when the tiles fall, the letters cease to exist from the spoken and written language. The penalties for infractions are quite severe: for the first peccadillo, a warning. The second infraction results in flogging or humiliating time in the wooden stocks in the town square. For the third (and final) infraction: deportation, and if deportation is refused, death. The islanders, communicating primarily by letters, tell the stories of families and friends who undergo humiliation by the police and authorities for using one of the forbidden words. Very quickly in the novel you learn that enforcement of this is not merely a ticket; mail is intercepted and scrutinised by a French idiot savant who alerts the authorities of the use of the forbidden letters; while homes are raided for old letters, books, and documents containing the banished graphemes. Clearly, the Nollopian authorities utilise Gestapo-like tactics to enforce the capricious will of the Island High Council.

As letters drop from the statue they are eliminated from the novel, and the characters (and author) are required to communicate in extensively creative ways. You must admire the efforts of Mark Dunn: he cleverly moves the novel along with creative sentence constructions and word substitutions that showcase his perspicuity, without coming across as ostentatious. It is only in the last forty pages that the characters use (with permission from the Island High Council, of course) homophones and phonological spellings of words, but in writing only (they are not permitted to attempt to use these spellings in speech). An example is the baffling "We wish ewe well with ephereething ewe trie to asheeph in these trieing phinal taes". While this may look extremely unfamiliar, you quickly grow accustomed to the conventions of the islanders' writings and will immediately see the sentence as "We wish you well with everything you try to achieve in these trying final days". If you are at all hesitant about reading 40 pages of writing in this style I promise that it is not only easy to do but exceptionally fun and hilarious to see the constructions Dunn employs.

The only chance of survival and linguistic redemption for the islanders is to create a pangram with fewer letters than Nevin Nollop's 35-letter phrase. As the central characters ban together to rebel from the oppression, Ella, the eponymous heroine, mesmerises you with her overall good-natured approach to the challenges provided by the Island High Council. Ultimately, you are reminded that such a story, while certainly over the top, resonates with similar occurrences in the world already: the use of some languages is strictly forbidden, religious oppression runs rampant (I'll leave it to you to come up with an example of your own, and if you can't, just Google "religious oppression"), and totalitarian regimes dictate nearly every aspect of personal and professional life (North Korea and Iran, as immediate examples). It is these over-arching parallelisms that make Ella Minnow Pea both illuminatingly humourous and darkly critical.

My criticisms of the novel are largely inconsequential but I feel the need to voice them. First, the novel is too short. I can't blame Dunn for this; I can only imagine how hard it was to create this novel, but I'm certain he utilised the Ctrl+F function in Word so often that his "Ctrl" and "F" keys are probably overworked and may have started a union demanding fair wages and equal treatment. Secondly, the Island High Council decrees that children under the age of eight are not at fault for using one of the forbidden letters, though after the age of eight the laws apply to them. While the characters admit that this edict is arbitrary (more so than any others, apparently), it is hard to imagine any eight-year-old understanding the ramifications of using a forbidden letter, least of all the linguistic ramifications that would arise from the standpoint of language acquisition if letters were suddenly abolished upon blowing out eight birthday candles. Never mind the fact that most eight-year-olds have a terrible time with spelling anyways, and would likely be deported within minutes of their birthday.

My final complaint is purely due to my training in phonology. The characters are only punished for using the banned letters and not the phonological sounds. Therefore, saying "bees", represented as [biz] phonologically, is not an instance of infraction if the letter "z" is banned, though saying "zebra" ([zibruh]) obviously would be. This would also pose a problem for anyone who is illiterate. Dunn circumvents my complaint by presenting the islanders as hyper-literate and intelligent, with a great esteem for letters and the written word, but if the islanders are truly so intelligent, could the laws of the High Council not be subverted if the citizens learned a different language, perhaps Arabic, that doesn't even use the Latin alphabet? This is not explored in great detail, because of two reasons: 1) the islanders have great esteem for English, and 2) exploration of this option would immediately remove the plot and conflict, and that's an obvious problem for Dunn, who makes a living off of the written word. So yes, I recognise that my complaints are mild and largely insignificant.

Ella Minnow Pea will transport you to a fictional, quirky island nation that is whimsical and entertaining. You will be immediately absorbed by the characters and Dunn's crafty writing and quirky efforts to break convention. If that's not enough reason to read the book, it is pure fun to be lost in words and language and to be reminded about a component of your basic humanity you use every day but of which you are largely oblivious.


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Rating: 9/10



Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel In Letters
Author: Mark Dunn
ISBN/EAN: 9780385722438
Publisher: Vintage/Anchor Books, an imprint of Random House
Edition: Second
Year: 2001 (second edition 2002)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 208
Dimensions: 129.5x200x15mm
Genre/Keywords: drama, fiction, humour



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