Subtitled on some editions as “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” and more simply, “A Novel in Letters” on others, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea will delight all you logophiles out there. This novel is linguistically playful and dexterous as it delivers a serious caution against censorship and misuse of power. It is set on the fictional island nation of Nollop off of the coast of the Carolinas and named after Nevin Nollop, creator of the “Foxy-Dog Sentence.”
The Foxy-Dog Sentence: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
As you can see or already know, this sentence uses every letter in the English alphabet once with minimal repetition. Such a sentence was seen as inspired by Nollopians, whose culture is devoted to language, and they erected a statue honoring Nevin in the town center upon which his brilliant words were affixed.
But then the Z falls from the cenotaph and everything else begins to fall with it.
The High Island Council believes that Mr. Nollop is reaching out from the grave, instructing them to strike Z from written and spoken usage, and decrees that anyone caught using the letter in question will be severely punished for the offense. Told through a series of letters, particularly the correspondence between Ella Minnow Pea & her cousin, we see the effect of this harsh, misguided edict on Nollop’s society as more letters begin to fall.
One of the best parts of this novel is watching Dunn negotiate language as the taboo, fallen letters can no longer appear in the notes the characters circulate around the island. The absence of the first few is not even apparent because the island’s residents already speak in a slightly antiquated and elevated manner (Foxy-Dog becomes Vulpine-Canine, for example). However the losses do become increasingly intrusive and are more disturbing as reflections of the Council’s tyranny. The following excerpt is from an early letter from Ella’s cousin, Tassie, and is a good illustration of what is truly at stake:
I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.
We are a well-educated, well-versed, and well-spoken people whom Mr. Nollop has taught to elevate language…Do you honestly believe this same Mr. Nollop would allow his fellow islanders to see their language so diminished? Or permit diminution of the islanders themselves by extension? I cannot even conceive of it. The Council is wrong. Yet, observe that none of us will risk telling it so, for fear of the consequences….
The novel offers quite an accelerated view of the effects of intolerance and the abuse of power, particularly when combined with fear. Common sense and humanity go out the window, that is until Ella Minnow Pea makes it her business to go and retrieve them.