[For ease of reading this book review, every instance of the word “letter” will refer to notes people write to each other, and “character” will mean a letter of the alphabet. I won’t use the word “letter” to refer to the alphabet, nor will I use “character” to talk about the people in the book. It’ll be too confusing if I do.]
Eighteen-year-old Ella Minnow Pea lives off the South Carolina coast on the fictional island of Nollop. Nollop is so named after Nevin Nollop, creator of the immortal pangram: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The island’s peaceful existence is interrupted, however, when one of the tiles (“Z”) falls from Nollop’s monument, and the High Council decides that this is Mr. Nollop’s way of speaking from the dead. They banish the character Z from all talking and writing. Other characters quickly follow as more tiles fall – Q, J, D… Islanders begin to leave, either voluntarily or due to expulsion for using the illegal characters. As the population thins down and the government becomes ever more totalitarian (intercepting mail, randomly searching houses, seizing property under flimsy pretenses), the Council agrees to stop interpreting the monument’s crumbling as a sign from the now-worshiped Mr. Nollop, but only under one condition – the islanders must come up with another pangram, using 32 characters or less. They have a deadline by which to do so, and as more tiles plunge (eventually leaving only LMNOP), the few remaining inhabitants (including Ella) scramble to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.
This was a really fascinating book. The whole thing is told in a series of letters back and forth between different people. As the alphabet thins, the letters become more creative. There are lots of lyrical twists to get around using illegal characters (they are not permitted to substitute legal phonetic alternatives until only 16 characters remain on the sign). I imagine it would have been near-impossible for this book to be written without a good word processor and searches for characters in each section! Dunn does an amazing job of writing the letters and still making them sound natural despite missing more and more characters all the time. Only after some vowels are dropped, as well as some major consonants, do the letters become almost ridiculous in their unnatural language. The writing is brilliant for its difficulty level alone!
Beyond the writing, Ella Minnow Pea touches on two very important themes: the loss of freedom by censorship, and the dangers of governing by religion. Nollop quickly becomes a totalitarian state as people lose their freedom of speech. All books are removed, which closes libraries and affects teaching. People of all ages are seized, humiliated, flogged, and exiled for slips of the tongue. Neighbors turn each other in for past grudges. Some people are killed or driven into hiding. Islanders end up in total despair, some losing their minds, some turning to alcoholic binges, some (quite creepy) flogging themselves for just thinking an illegal character. Dunn shows how quickly a simple act of censorship can eventually disintegrate an entire society.
And then there’s the Council’s interpretation of Nollop-Almighty’s will. These five men choose to see what they want to see in events which, in all reality, have natural, non-spiritual causes. Some are just power-hungry (they get the best abandoned properties to themselves!), while some truly believe Mr. Nollop is lording over them from the land of the dead. Either way, they become completely oblivious to the welfare of their people. Humanity ceases to exist with them. There’s a good passage in one of Ella’s letters:
The high priests generate their alpha-elisions, then return to their lairs to eat what tasties were put there, while praying to Nollop, paying homage to Nollop, stooping, prostrating, salaaming to Nollop. Ignoring all humanity in their Nollop-apotheosis.
Let us say Nollip were all-hallow preeminent Omnipotentate, why – still – shut out all those with whom one shares this planet? Were we put here on this earth only to worship? Exalting Nollop is to erase all that is non-Nollopian upon this isle. To utterly erase an upright, meritorious people. Genoerasure.
(This excerpt, btw, is from a letter restricted to seventeen characters of the alphabet.)
Dunn seems to be saying, in parallel, that worship and divine interpretation alone does not save us, rather attention to our fellow man. We need a sense of humanity and charity to truly be good people.
My copy of this book quotes the Christian Science Monitor as saying, “There’s a whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea.” I have to say I agree. Sure, I’ve heard reviewers say the characterization is a little shallow, but frankly, it’s hard to get a glimpse of anyone’s personality through a series of letters. The people and letters seemed natural enough to me, especially given the increasing limitations as time went by. At times, I wished there was some exposition, so that I could see the things going on behind the scenes, but by the end, it no longer mattered. I began to fill in that information for myself, to read between the gaps. The minor irritations in form are completely made up for by content, and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.