On the island of Nollop, somewhere off the coast of the Carolinas, elevated language is prized, words are valued, and letter-writing is a supreme art (which is useful, since there are no telephones or computers). Thus Mark Dunn’s novel Ella Minnow Pea is entirely an epistolary novel, conducted mainly between protagonist Ella Minnow Pea (get it?) and her cousin Tassie Purcy. The inhabitants run into trouble when their statue to Nollop, their namesake and the creator of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” that famous phrase that uses all twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, begins to fall into disrepair. One by one, letters of this phrase fall off, and the elected High Council decrees that according to the evident will of Nollop, they must all cease using these letters. The epistles making up the story face increasing restrictions, and it’s fascinating to see how the islanders’ language evolves to cope.
This all sounds like it would make for a quirky and fun read.
But what if I were to add that as the tiles fall and more and more letters become outlawed, all libraries are closed, the books confiscated because they contain forbidden letters. Punishments don’t get worse over time; they start severe: the first offence merits a public reprimand; the second a choice of flogging or the stocks; the third banishment upon threat of death. The government even begins opening and reading mail, betraying its supposed devotion to Nollop by disobeying his direct command that correspondence between citizens should remain private. This is a fable just as dark as, say, 1984, and like Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, Ella Minnow Pea deals with questions of power and its abuse, governmental control, censorship, surveillance, violence, fear, suspicion, the limits of societal acceptance and passivity, legal rights, and even exploitation of religious ideology. It is, quite frankly, terrifying, even as you have to admire the author’s clever turns of phrases as his characters are forced to become creative in their avoidance of more and more letters of the alphabet.
I read this book thanks to Simon's recommendation. His review is much more excellent than mine, because he tries his hand at avoiding a common letter (quite successfully too, since I didn't notice until he pointed it out at the end!)