An Exercise in Wordplay

Ella Minnow Pea by Paul Dunn
Grade: A

There is something that potential readers of this book need to understand before attempting to read it. Ella Minnow Pea is not really a novel, or at least not a traditional one. It’s an exercise in wordplay. Some of the consequences of this are

  • it is written in epistolary style.
  • the plot is contrived and predictable.
  • the characters are not highly developed.
  • you can read it in a single sitting.

Ella Minnow Pea takes place on a fictional island, called Nollop, located off the coast of South Carolina. The island was named after Nevil Nollop, the man credited with the invention of the famous pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The island’s residents revere language and shun technology, and Nollop is a hero to them. There is even a monument dedicated to him. On it hang lettered tiles spelling out his pangram.

One day, a lettered tile (the Z) falls from the monument and shatters on the ground. Some people think it’s a message from Nollop from beyond the grave. They town council decides that the fallen tile means Nollop no longer wants them to use the letter Z, so they ban the letter from the island. As other letters fall, they are subsequently banned, creating great difficulties for the residents of the island who want and need to communicate with one another.

The punishment system for using the banned letters is quite severe. The punishment for the first offense is a warning and public censure. The punishment for the second offense is either a lashing or time in the stocks (the offender gets to pick between the two). The punishment for the third offense is banishment.

It would be impossible for this premise to work if the characters actually spoke to one another. That’s why the author uses letters (epistles) sent back and forth between characters. It is also imperative that the authorities read the epistles (so people who use banned letters can be punished) but the authorities have to ignore the meaning of the words (so that characters can make plans for freeing themselves from the tyranny of the council). That’s one of the hardest challenges to the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In order to enjoy the book, you have to get past this and other unlikely scenarios.

As letters fall and are taken away, so is the island’s population diminished as residents leave or are banished. Toward the end of the story, few people remain on the island. However, the last few residents convince the council that should anyone write a better pangram than Nollop did (i.e., using fewer total letters) it would prove Nollop was not omniscient and that they don’t have to give up all of the fallen letters. The council agrees. Everyone tries their hand at the pangram.

This book gave me an enjoyable evening of reading. I was able to forgive its flaws, because I saw them as part of the structure necessary to frame the wordplay. I think I’d like to read it again someday just to revel in the author’s use of language (I often get caught up in the story and the meaning of the words and forget to enjoy the language itself). I also would like to try writing my own pangram.

I liked Ella Minnow Pea and I recommend if for people who love words and wordplay.

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