Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea

Author: Mark Dunn
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2002

Ella Minnow Pea, the title and lead protagonist in Mark Dunn’s quirky and loving ode to the alphabetarian in all us, lives a happy existence on the fictional island of Nollop. This island, located just off the coast of South Carolina, has a distinguished heritage as having been the home of Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Dunn’s modern fable is a spirited literary experiment evolving from the pleasures and devastations that arise as a result of the worshipfulness the Island’s residents lay at the feet of their famous history.

This worshipfulness is manifested in a brilliant monument to Nollop that includes his famous sentence. Time passes unmarked on Nollop until one eventful day a century later when the carefully constructed terracotta letters start falling off the monument one by one. As the letters continue to fall, the Island undergoes a widespread panic. They believe that the falling letters are a sign from Nollop himself, signaling them to reevaluate their use of these letters. The High Council’s resolution is to ban the use of the fallen letters, and those who do not follow the law are to be banned from the Island as well.

And so begins the transformation of this once peaceful place into a military state. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Books are burned. People stop speaking and writing for fear of punishment. Eventually, the monument has just five letters remaining, ‘LMNOP’ or (conveniently) Ella Minnow Pea. It is Ella and her small group of dissidents who first work to change the Island’s policy regarding the alphabet mayhem, and then work just as hard to develop a new pangram that will allow the Island to emerge from their language lock down.

Dunn tells the story in a series of letters, with each letter mirroring the restrictive communicative bounds taking place in the story. His literary device also stays true to the story as the people of Nollop are letters writers because of inconsistent telephone service. What Dunn provides with these letters is a first-hand account of how truly reliant we are on the alphabet, and how the loss of even one letter can severely affect people’s abilities to communicate and even function at a basic level.

You can also look upon Ella Minnow Pea as a light commentary on organized religion and government paranoia. As the story progresses, the Island moves from an ideal to a frightening parable on the devastating effects language sanctions can have on individual’s identity. Dunn constructs his characters and events deliberately to highlight how the fervor of panic can be tied to even the most trivial of items. The obvious solution to the problem would be to create new letters but the resident’s devotion blinds them to the easy solution. As such, it is a story of power abuse, as elders and elected officials take control and push their interpretations onto others.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever exercise in creative writing. The novel can be a trying read as Dunn must, in order to maintain the story, use phonetic spellings and odd phrasings to keep the narrative moving forward. Readers may begin to feel less secure in their abilities to comprehend what is being said, what Dunn is trying to say, because of his approach. But take the time and expend the effort, especially if you are a language lover, as you will be most assuredly dazzled by what Dunn has constructed with his debut novel.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved this book! I thought it was wonderful writing. Good points in your review...