I’m going to begin this review as I do many others: I was excited to read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I really was! I mean, look at that cover (<–). It’s adorable. Plus, as a lover of language, the story seemed almost impossibly charming and clever: Ella Minnow Pea, a precocious 18-year-old laundress, lives on the island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. The original home of Nevin Nollop—the founder of the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”—Nollop residents have a holy reverence for language, exemplified in the fantastically worded letters that make up the novel. At the center of Nollop’s largest town is a statue of Nevin Nollop, with the phrase written in tile letters beneath him. However, when the tile letters begin falling off one day, island elders see this as an almost religious sign, and begin banning the fallen letters from residents’ vocabulary (both written and spoken). The result is both hilarious and frightening, as residents must cope with the missing letters in creative and desperate ways, or risk banishment. Eventually, the elders agree that if someone can craft a sentence using all 26 letters of the alphabet that is shorter than Nollop’s original creation, then the missing letters may be restored.
Seriously, how cute is that? Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I too am a big fan of words—as a writer and copy editor, you develop a serious respect for their power as well as the many idiosyncrasies of the English language. (Save the Words takes this one step further and encourages people to “adopt” little-used words to save them from being dropped from the OED.) But beyond that, it was fascinating watching the novel adapt and change as more tiles fell: Ella and her family had to devise new ways of expressing common thoughts, phrases and emotions. I mean, if you were unable to use the letter “L,” how would you say “I love you?” How would you feel if you were unable to express the sounds bees make without “Zs”? Eventually, residents are forced to turn to coding and other various modes of substitution in order to survive—because really, is a mute, illiterate existence worth living for?
These kinds of questions lend themselves to more of the book’s themes: totalitarianism, free speech and the balance between personal freedom and patriotism. I can see Ella Minnow Pea as being a worthy addition to any school reading list, perhaps among a younger, junior high-ish set (though it’s not a YA novel), for its innovative approach to big issues. Actually, this is a really good idea, and so I hope some you are teachers out there. The more we can reinvigorate our English curriculum with new works, the more likely we’ll be able to create lifelong readers at a younger age. Ella Minnow Pea isn’t a difficult read, but it’s well-written, compelling and appropriate for any age group. I can’t remember where I heard about it, but I hope whoever else is talking about this one keeps up the good work.