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Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (5/5). A word lover’s dream book.

2 Sep

I almost read this book in 2012. There’s always an ‘almost,’ isn’t there? I saw a poster at library advertising that a book club was read this and I decided to sign up, only to learn the meeting was the day before. Drats. So it went on the list and when I found a second-hand copy, I bought it, but it stalled. When my work book-club was looking for something, I suggested this and I’m so glad I did. What a wonderful read.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop where the people are more than happy to forgo some modern advances to keep close to their first love; words. Nevin Nollop is the man attributed with crafting the famous phrase The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. To commemorate the man, there is a statue with the phrase erected in the town square. But what should they do when one morning the letter Z has fallen off and shattered? What about when more letters start to follow? Is this a sign from Nollop that these letters should be removed from the vocabulary, or merely a result of faulty glue?

This book is perfect for word lovers. As the letters fall off the statue, they disappear from the book. After the first Z falls off, other letters soon follow and the words Dunn chooses become more and more selective and his pool of options dwindles. The amazing part is that the prose doesn’t seem choppy until very late in the story (after some vowels have lost their way) and despite his self-imposed limitations, Dunn’s words sing. Ella is a great character and as outlandish as her predicament seems, it’s a very real analogy for oppression around the world. Bravo, Mark Dunn!

I loved the different ways the characters reacted tot he oppression of the island council. Some were defiant, using the band letters and quickly being banished from the island. Some, like Ella’s aunt Mittie, tried very hard to follow the rules even if they did not agree. There was Georgeanne who would snoop and report those close to her for slight violations. Nate, an American student interested in the island, helped lead a revolt along with Ella because he knew the culture was going to be destroyed if the council had its way. More than anything, these characters wanted a way to communicate their thoughts and share what they thought about the things happening around them, but there was censorship. And in the end, even the council realized they’d taken censorship too far.

Nate was my favorite character. He was interested in culture, which is something I can appreciate. (One of my majors was Spanish and I wrote my thesis on Basque national identity.) I related to his initial reaction to use technology to solve the problem, but loved how accepting he was of the limits of Nollop’s culture and his eventual determination to solve the problem by hand. I think his romantic interest was a bit forced (no spoilers!) and unneeded, but it was still nice to see how well he acclimated to the island.

I could relate to the freedom of speech issues that the characters endured. I’ve never directly suffered from speech oppression, but I’ve sometimes felt that I can’t write about things I want to because of how it will tinge my other writing. The beginning of the story, when it’s only one or two letters that have fallen, reminded me of this.

I loved the ending of this book! I’m trying not to give too much away, but Ella was so inventive in how she solved the problem and I thought that was an amazing way of ending the issues. I was sad to see the characters that were lost along the way and I liked that it ended on a note of redemption.

Mark Dunn Image via

Mark Dunn
Image via

I also enjoyed when the words started to be spelled phonetically based on the remaining letters. I thought that was fun to read.

The only part of the book I didn’t like was when Nate returned to the island. I felt that his ability to return to the island illegally almost undermined the credibility of the council to be so overbearing. But as my dislike was so minor, you can tell I really liked this book!

There are so many themes to discuss with this selection! Freedom of Speech is the first. Not only are the people’s written communication monitored for the forbidden letters, but they aren’t allowed to publicly speak out against the oppression. A person trying to re-attach a letter is a heretic (because of course it’s Nollop’s will that it fell). Ella and her friends have to rebel to fight back.

The other is freedom. Is it better to be free or to follow the rules and avoid punishment? Ella toys the line; following the rules so she can be able to fight for freedom. There are others who care more about their freedom of speech (Amos) and those who care about following the rules (Georgeanne). The book gives a spectrum of everyone.

Writer’s Takeaway: The biggest thing I took away was not to be afraid to play with language. Dunn crafted a beautiful novel with great themes. The letter’s disappearance made the book fun to read, which is a great way to engage readers. Also, the subtle references to language were fun to find. (Ella Minnow Pea = LMNOP, Rederick Lyttle = little rhetoric)

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time and a welcome breath of fresh air in literature! A full five out of five stars.

This book fulfills ‘South Carolina’ in my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

If you’re interested in doing the next Read Along event here at Taking on a World of Words, check out this blog post to see the details and send me an email!

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Ella Minnow Pea | Tales from the Reading Room
Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn | Lulu’s Bookshelf
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn | Sarah Says Read