Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn has been on my radar (and my shelves) for years. It’s been recommended to me by several people whose reading opinions I trust. So when I put together my TBR Pile Challenge list, I made sure Ella Minnow Pea was on it.
About the Book:
Ella Minnow Pea lives on the island of Nollop, where Nevin Nollop — native son and inventor of that famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” — is revered. There is a monument to him in Nollop’s capital, above which his famous sentence is spelled out in alphabet titles.
Then one day, a single tile falls from the sentence and shatters on the ground below: “z.” What does it mean? The Council members call an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. Their decision sets Nollop on a slippery slope toward the destruction of language, the very thing Nollop prides itself for.
The story unfolds in letters between Ella, her cousin Tassie, both girls’ mothers, as well as assorted other family and community members. Through them, the consequences of the Council’s decision play out in real time as Nollop’s inhabitants fight to save the very language they cherish.
Ella Minnow Pea really is delightful. If you’re one of the people who has nudged me to read it over the past few years, thank you! It’s an odd blend of deliciously erudite language and quick, entertaining story. At just over 200 pages, it makes for a short but satisfying little read, too.
The epistolary format is ingenious. First, it keeps the novel short and compact. There are no long descriptions of past events or present environments because they aren’t relevant. It’s focused on what’s happening because that is what’s on the characters’ minds. (This is also a shortcoming, to me, as I’ll explain in a moment, but it serves what I believe to be Dunn’s intent quite well.) Second, it lets you, as the reader, see exactly what happens as letters drop from the monument and the Council makes its decrees. Without saying too much in the way of spoilers, I was both dazzled by the creativity the author employed through his characters and slightly horrified by the thought of such a thing actually coming to pass.
If you think too hard about it, the parallels you can draw to issues like censorship or the blind following of a leader are scary. No doubt you can read Ella Minnow Pea as a warning parable; despite its fun exterior, it seems well suited to that. I chose not to go there during the readathon, when my main focus was — unsurprisingly — to read. But now it’s gnawing at the back corners of my mind as something worth looking at again. There’s a darker side underlying the jolly surface, I think.
I had only one complaint. Let me preface it by saying I think the author achieved the sort of book he was going for and that therefore, what I’m about to say is more a matter of personal preference than any shortcoming of Dunn’s. Despite all its linguistic play and clever allegorical potential, Ella Minnow Pea struck me as shallow in terms of character and story. You learn a handful of facts about each character, but none of the people who turn up in the novel’s pages has any depth. They are, primarily, vehicles through which the Council’s decrees and their impact on Nollopian society can unfold. The story is focused entirely on those decrees and their impact, which is certainly understandable given their scope and severity. I have no trouble believing they would be front and center in the characters’ minds. But there’s basically no fluff to pad the tale into a well-rounded story. As I said, I think that was the author’s intent rather than something he achieved inadvertently. Personally, I believe it would have been even more fascinating with a little more meat on its bones. It’s still quite an enjoyable book; just don’t expect a character- and story-rich novel to sink your teeth into.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
If you like clever wordplay, epistolary formats, or a bit of whimsey and imagination in the novels you read, you really can’t go wrong with Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Added bonus: it’s a quick read!
What’s your favorite novel in which the language itself is particularly engaging?