Books: Ella Minnow Pea

This is another book I read because it was the monthly selection for the book discussion group I joined in November. (Unfortunately, it’s also another book I won’t get to discuss at the book club due to schedule conflicts.) It is short and an easy read – unless you are troubled by encountering vocabulary words you don’t know and feel obliged to look them up in a dictionary.

I rarely encounter words I don’t know, but this book had some, such as aposiopesis. They didn’t interfere with my understanding what was going on, but I found myself wondering whether author Mark Dunn even knew all the words himself or if he had to go specifically looking for unusual words to include. The entire book is a play on words, and on letters.

The setting for Ella Minnow Pea is a fictional island where people love words and their use. Lacking reliable phone service, they have cultivated the art of letter-writing. The entire novel is written in the form of letters, mostly between two cousins who live in different towns on the island.

Letters of another kind play a crucial role also – the letters of the alphabet, spelling out the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which was supposedly written by the founder of this island society. Unfortunately, the letters which make up the display of this sentence (in a monument to the founder) are gradually falling down due to age and exposure to the elements.

The leaders of the society have decided, rather strangely, that their founder is speaking to them from beyond the grave, telling them to stop using those letters which have fallen. Laws are passed forbidding not only the written use of these letters, but also spoken use of words containing these letters.

When the forbidden letters are Z and Q, most people aren’t initially too upset, though other foresee the inevitable loss of free speech when there are arbitrary limitations on what can be said. Libraries and schools have all their books taken away, because the books contain the forbidden letters. One by one, citizens start to go into exile because they either have violated the new laws, or are unwilling to live in a place which forbids free speech in this way.

The letters exchanged by the cousins must follow the same restrictions, and as more and more letters fall and are banned, the vocabulary of the correspondence between the cousins becomes more limited. There is some interesting inventiveness in finding words to replace those that could not be used – cephalus in place of head, terminal-cot in place of death-bed. I had looked forward to seeing the author’s increasing inventiveness in managing with fewer and fewer letters, but what happens is mostly that the letters get much shorter.

While I found the book reasonably entertaining, it falls short of being the sort of book I get excited about, even if it is about one of my favorite subjects (words). I can’t quite decide where it’s poking mild fun, and where it’s trying to be serious. At the end, I wondered if the entire book was just an excuse to use a new pangram. (I won’t say what it is, as it plays a role in the plot.)

I read one review that says the idea for the book is clever, but that it was done previously – and better – by James Thurber. So my next library book is The Wonderful O.


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