Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

Monday, January 15, 2018

Like most readers, I am fascinated by language. The ability to create entire worlds with nothing more than some black squiggles on a piece of paper (or some zeros and ones on a computer screen) is magical and miraculous. Like many readers, I find myself drawn to books about language, and reading, and libraries, and bookshops, and anything word-related.  So when I picked up a copy of Ella Minnow Pea at a used book sale, I was just sure that I was going to devour every page and still want more. Alas, that was not to be.

Ella Minnow Pea is the story of a mythical island of Nollop off the east coast of the South Carolina, a place that was founded by Nevin Nollop, the inventor of the unique sentence "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.", which contains every letter of the English alphabet and is the bane of typing/keyboarding students everywhere. The novel is told as a series of letters between the titular Ella and her cousin, detailing the increasingly authoritarian rules and behavior of the Island Council, which begins eliminating letters from lawful usage due according to which letter tiles fall off of the statue of the island's founder.

Obviously, the story was not meant to be hyper-realistic, but I found Dunn's world-building to be lacking. I suppose the events of the story were supposed to be absurd, but I found myself not able to take myself out of reality sufficiently to go with it. I didn't really believe that an entire island's worth of people would agree to abide by the ridiculous rules that were handed down. I did find some of the letters rather charming in their use of slightly formal, almost Victorian-type language, there just wasn't enough there there for me to feel anything more than casual indifference to what happened to the characters.

While the story itself didn't really do it for me, I can appreciate the skill that went into writing lengthy, detailed messages to tell the story with a slowly shrinking list of usable letters. Since the story was told entirely from the point of view of these two characters, who were bound by the bizarre and draconian rules of the island council, their narration of events had to successfully navigate around the outlawed parts of the alphabet. And these young ladies were not stingy with their words.  This feat of mental and linguistic gymnastics deserves respect, regardless of whether I actually liked or cared about the story. I can also see how a case could be made that the plot was a commentary on censorship and free speech, but it felt too heavy-handed.

My final recommendation is meh. If you, too, are interested in books about wordy things, then I'd say give it a go. If not, you should probably skip it.

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