Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is a difficult book to categorize, so I’ll just call it incredibly clever. It’s an epistolary novel, and I have a soft spot for those, but it is also a word game. The plot manages to be both quirky and sweet, and the protagonist is heroic and funny. Here’s the deal...
Her island home revolves around (worships) its most famous deceased resident, Nevin Nollop, the author of the phrase that was once memorized by budding typists everywhere: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." This famous sentence was purportedly the shortest known sentence to use all the letters of the alphabet. As such, it was immortalized with tile letters atop a statue of Nollop in the town center. One day, the letter "Z" falls from the monument!!!
The town council rejects the possibility of repair, opting instead for the choice that Nollop is obviously commanding from beyond the grave. The letter "Z" must be excised from the alphabet. Henceforth, the inhabitants of the island are forbidden to use it. This option takes some of the islanders by surprise. It seems a bit extreme. But after all, it’s only a "Z."
As time goes by, and more letters fall, the council goes to greater lengths to ensure that letters are obliterated from existence. Neighbors begin to inform on one another. People are exiled from the island. Ella is one of the few brave resistance fighters, seeking sanity in a world gone mad.
Written as a series of epistles, the writers don’t dare use the banned letters or they risk harsh penalties. The contortions they go through to obey the laws are funny and inspiring. The amazing thing about this novel is that Dunn drops letters from the book as they fall from the statue. (And the options left get very limited, but he keeps on–like a verbal limbo– how low can he go?)
It’s a silly book. And yet through this silliness Dunn is showing us things about human nature and human resilience. Ella is a shining example of courage and common sense. And through it all, the love of language shines brightest of all.