Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ella Minnow Pea

The island-state of Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, who devised the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. His accomplishment is commemorated in a memorial monument with 35 tiles spelling out his immortal sentence.

The problem begins subtly, though, when the Z tile falls off.

Ella Minnow Pea, one of the islanders, writes to her cousin Tassie to explain that the islanders’ Council has met to discuss the implications of this. They conclude that, rather than the tile’s fall being a random event, it must be a sign from the island’s favorite son. Nollop no longer wishes the letter Z to be used, and therefore it must be removed from use and vocabulary.

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters tells the story of how the island’s community and culture spirals down from there. Eliminating the Z doesn’t seem too difficult at first, but when Tassie’s mother, a teacher, accidentally refers to twelve eggs in a different way, one of her students reports her to the Council. Penalties are imposed for such misdeeds, and a third offense means banishment from the island.

The Q drops off next, and the J. As news spreads, the editor of an American journal arrives with the news that chips from the broken tiles have been smuggled to a laboratory for analysis. The glue affixing the tiles to the monument is faulty, and chemists predict that more tiles will fall.

As that happens, the islanders’ vocabulary shrinks along with their numbers. People who have not been banished have fled; those who remain have to change their names to avoid forbidden letters. And Ella tries her best to devise a new pangram that will replace Nollop’s all-but-deified sentence, because only this will convince the Council to relent.

Tiles plop. 8 tiles plomp plomp plomp all in one nite.
Tee ent is near.
So lon A!
So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)

The book starts sedately, but once the islanders take their first steps on to the slippery slope of censorship and totalitarianism, the plot picks up speed. It’s both fascinating and unnerving to see how fear eats away at their common sense and social structure, turning otherwise good people into informers and fundamentalists. And yet the story unfolds with both elegance and humor, such as when the Council sends written notice of deportation to a woman, concluding with: “You may bring two suitcases. We will permit, also, one hatbox.

As well as being an engaging satire, this is a great read for anyone who enjoys the written word. It was on my must-buy list, and now it’s on my shelf.


gypsyscarlett said...

Oh, this one sounds really interesting!

*makes note*

Randall said...

A notice of deportment, or of deportation?

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - This is a striking (yet carefully handled) depiction of what can happen when people's words become Holy Writ.

Randall - D'oh! Thanks for letting me know.