This is one of the best fiction books I’ve read in a while. It was just so clever, and I could not put it down!
Title – Ella Minnow Pea: a novel in letters
Author – Mark Dunn
Page count – 208
Rating – Buy. I will definitely read this again and anticipate recommending it frequently.
Ella Minnow Pea is a teenager living on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. The island is named after Nevin Nollop, the (again, fictional) creator of the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” (This sentence is a pangram, meaning it uses all the letters of the alphabet at least once.) This sentence is spelled out in tiles on a statue of Nollop, but as the tiles suddenly start to fall off, the islanders are forbidden to write or speak using those fallen letters. The book is written as a series of letters/notes between the inhabitants of the island, including Ella. As more letters fall from the statue, the letter-writers have to get creative with how they communicate to avoid using the forbidden letters.
A quick thought: Sometimes I find the use of long or complex words in a story as the author just wanting to sound smart. I didn’t get that vibe here. The characters simply seem to appreciate selecting exactly the right word to express what they mean. And it helps to highly the change in language as certain letters become forbidden.
**Some SPOILERS ahead for minor plot points, but I won’t give away anything major or the ending. You should experience that fresh for yourself**
This book would probably fall under the category of dystopia, but if you are also a bit weary of that genre – never fear! This story has a decidedly less hopeless tone. The island inhabitants always have the option to leave voluntarily, being so close to South Carolina, and they do manage to band together to come up with solutions for navigating this developing problem.
BUT there are still lessons we can take from this fictional world. And one of the ways this book provides those lessons is through the use of “print culture.”
(Small aside: I had never really thought about how print culture functions in a story until I started listening to a podcast called Witch, Please which is about the Harry Potter world. Would recommend.)
Again, this entire book is based around letters between various characters, but that is because this community has eschewed most modern forms of technology. They also have an extensive library of books and a couple newspapers. The written word is their main way of communicating with each other and accessing information. Those abilities are quickly stifled as the letter tiles fall off the statue. And limiting the public’s access to information and efficient interpersonal communication is how the island’s leaders are able to control the community. A community *must* fight for its ability to access information and communicate freely if it is to remain a free society.
My quote is from one of the character’s letters addressing the news of the letter “Q” falling but before the deadline to cease its use:
“Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.” (p. 34)