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Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea

ella minnow peaElla Minnow Pea. Say it fast. What does it sound like? L, M, N, O, P, of course. Ta da! Why does that matter? Because Mark Dunn’s book–the full title is Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lippogrammatic Epistolary Fable–is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in a long time. It is also absurd, so if you’re looking for realism, please leave this page and go read some Solzhenitsyn.

But if you’re okay with a plot not really making much sense, here’s the summary.

Summary of Ella Minnow Pea

Set on the not-real island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina, this is a book about language and letters. Specifically, sometimes grimly so, the worship of such.

Nollop was named after the creator of a famous pangram. A pangram is a sentence that uses all 26 letters of the alphabet at least once. Nevin Nollop’s pangram was “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

This sentence is spelled out in tiles on a statue of Nollop’s nakesake, one letter per tile. Unfortunately, shortly after the book starts, the tiles begin dropping off of the statue.

This wouldn’t be a big deal except that the Elders running the show take it as a sign. If a letter falls off of the statue, it is no longer legal to use it in written or verbal speech. There is a three strike rule which eventually leads to the offender being banished back to the lame mainland.

The book is written through letters from the island’s citizens, with Ella being the main character. Watching them try to communicate in epistles as they have fewer and fewer letters available to them is great fun, and I was really impressed with how creative Mark Dunn was able to get. Towards the end there are only five letters.

The council does offer an option to the citizens of Nollop: Come up with a shorter pangram and we’ll fix things. “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog” has 35 letters. They have to come up with a 32 letter pangram.

The race is on.

Does this sound ridiculous? It is, in the best way. Recommended for lovers of words, language, short books, books about letters, or anyone who is looking for a way to lighten up after reading Solzhenitsyn, whom I love, by the way.

Oh, it also looks like there’s an Ella Minnow Pea Sparknotes manual. I can’t imagine why. Pretty much any dissection you can do in this book is spelled out for you in the pages. Unless of course someone just can’t be bothered to read it for homework. Tisk!

If you’re tempted to write up your own Ella Minow Pea summary, I’d challenge you to do it with just 14 letters, in the spirit of the story.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Blaine Moore January 8, 2011, 6:12 pm

    Sounds like a fun book…I’ll have to pick up a copy at the library.

  • Pauline January 9, 2011, 8:19 pm

    I read this when it first came out. I thought it was creative and funny! I found out that some people don’t “get it” for some reason (lack of imagination?) and thus I didn’t continue to recommend it to friends for fear they wouldn’t understand it. For readers who love words and language, it is a great read. Thanks for your review.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 10, 2011, 6:03 pm

      You’re welcome. Dunn has at least one other book, too, but I haven’t read it.