Several books sit in my to-be-read pile. One of them was Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. As judging a book by its cover goes, I would likely never pick up this book. Nevertheless, it was recommended by a dear friend so I gave it a try. I was not disappointed.
Nevin Nollop is credited as the creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.” A pangram is a sentence that uses each letter of the alphabet at least once and repeats as few as possible. Nollop’s pangram, at 33 letters long, earned him hometown-renown, and the town was named Nollop some time after this death. The High Council went all out with a memorial statue that includes his pangram.
The story begins with a young woman named Ella Minnow Pea writing to her cousin that one of the letters from the pangram has fallen off the statue. The High Council determines that Nollop himself (though dead) has done this and wants to communicate with the town’s citizens. The message is obvious. The letter that fell must be eradicated from the alphabet and, consequently, the English language. Citizens of Nollop are held accountable for any written or spoken use of forbidden letters. They have limited chances before they are banished to the mainland, and every strike against them has consequences.
Dunn writes a beautiful story, both in plot and creativity. He fashions his entire narrative around the pangram. As letters fall from Nollop’s memorial, Dunn ceases to use those in his writing. It seems easy enough to do when you think about q’s and x’s, but what about all of the words that have d’s or h’s? Don’t even think about vowels! This is a remarkable literary accomplishment for Dunn. By the end of the book, there are so few letters left that Dunn’s spelling gets mostly phonetic and quite inventive. Curiously, though, I had little difficulty understanding it. I attribute this ability of mine to our text message language. Our abbreviations have turned to code that can be understood as a language all its own. And we, as a generation, are (regrettably) fluent.
The form of the story is in letters and notes written to and from Dunn’s characters. Ella Minnow Pea (or L M N O P as she is known at the end of the story) is our protagonist and one of the last members of society remaining on Nollop. Ella is determined to save the island from the High Council’s ridiculous demands. Her task is to create a pangram that uses fewer letters than Nollop’s.
I love storytelling through letters between characters. To develop characters through this medium takes great skill and understanding of human communication. Each character has his own voice and each letter its own tone. Each event is important enough to warrant its own letter or note. Each sentence is deliberate. There is no room for fillers, tangents, or fluff. No words are wasted. And this is exactly how we should use language.