Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.