Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 208 pages, 2001

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: A number of mentions on Book Crazy finally lured me in, as well as the cleverly silly title.

Synopsis: The island that the teenaged Ella lives on is (practically) famous for having been the home of Nevin Nollop, who came up with “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” as the shortest phrase to contain all the letters of the alphabet. The sentence has been displayed for ages in the centre of town, but suddenly, beginning with the ‘z’ in lazy, the tiles start dropping off. The town council takes it as a sign to ban the letters from speech and the written word as they fall. In a series of letters, Ella and her fellow townspeople attempt to stay in contact with each other without slipping up and using an illegal letter of the ever-shrinking alphabet, which would result in banishment from their beloved island.

Why you should read this book: If nothing else, Dunn gets props for the imagination and vocabulary needed in order to keep the book interesting as the availability of letters shrinks. Ella Minnow Pea is like reading snippets of (mostly) good-natured town gossip and romance, but under the most unusual of trying circumstances. The story is unique and creative, and the fast pace ensures the idea of the dwindling alphabet never gets tired. The last section of the book can be a strain to read as the alphabet slims to a handful of letters, but it will certainly make you very grateful for the variety of words we can use to express ourselves. A must for word-junkies.

Why you should avoid this book: By the end of the novel, the language is so sparse that there’s often just a paragraph per page – maybe not a deterent to read the book, but definitely cause to think twice about actually purchasing a copy. The epistolary format can leave the characters with a certain coldness because we can only glimpse them through their letter-writing and not actual interactions with each other. At points in the story, the sentence structure seems overly formal and unnecessarily stilted (not justifiable even with the reduced availabilty of letters), which can give the impression that cleverness occasionally outweighted the story and/or characters.

Opening paragraph:

Dear Cousin Tassie,
Thank you for the lovely postcards. I trust that you and Aunt Mittie had a pleasant trip, and that all your stateside friends and paternal relations are healthy and happy.

Fabulous quotes:

Throbbing Sister Mittie,
Still you are luckier to be in the village. Eighteen families were sent away this morning. Many of the members I knew. Losing the first three letters was relatively easy in comparison to this most recent banishment.
Slips of the tongue. Slips of the pen. All over town people hesitate, stammer, fumble for ways to express themselves, gripgrasping about for linguistic concoctions to serve the simplest of purposes. Receiving no easy purchase.
I go to the baker’s. I point. We all point. We collapse upon our mattresses at the close of each evening, there to feel…feel…utteryly, wholly diminished.
There. I now happily enlist in the ‘first offense club.’

Hello there. I am Ella – the one who smile at y’all yesters. Whose home is near. I am writing to people who are still here. Who I still see in the streets, who peep at me – wall-in, porthole, portiere people. Wanting to say something, with anxiety stilling erstwhile galloping yammers. 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.

Also recommended: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ; Evelina by Frances Burney.

Also by this author: Zounds!: A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections; Welcome to Higby; Ibid: A Life.

Fun tidbit: lipography : the omission of letters or words in writing.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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