2018 has been quite a slog, and I think we’d all enjoy a bit of lightness and humor to end the year. In Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, Mark Dunn shows us in a humorous way the joy that the manipulation of words and language can bring to those of us who treasure them. If just speaking aloud the title doesn’t bring at least a smile to your face, I guarantee there are many pages in this book that will cause you to laugh out loud at Dunn’s creativity.

The story takes place on the fictional island nation of Nollop located just off the coast of South Carolina. It is named in honor of Nevin Nollop, the idolized creator of the famous phrase familiar to beginning typists:

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

This sentence utilizes all 26 letters of the alphabet in 35 characters. It was such an extraordinary and unparalleled achievement in the minds of the island’s ruling High Council that they worshiped Nollop and had erected a monument celebrating his brilliance a century earlier. The monument includes the famous sentence in the form of affixed tiles.

Ella Minnow Pea is an astute 18-year-old who lives on the island with her family and friends. They communicate mainly by letter, and the book is a collection of letters chronicling the events of this story as they unfold.

One day the tile bearing the letter “Z” in the sentence falls off the monument, smashing to pieces on the ground below. Logic might suggest that the tile could simply be replaced, right? Such a simple solution is not acceptable to the island’s High Council. They interpret the incident as “a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop’s wishes,” his way of telling Nollopians “from beyond the grave” that the letter “should be utterly excised—fully extirpated—absolutively heave-ho’d from our communal vocabulary!” (p. 6)

The strength of the Council’s pronouncement clearly leaves no room for disagreement or even discussion. In fact, the Council outlaws any use of “Z” in islanders’ speech and all written communication. Penalties are instituted for its use or possession in any form. A first violation earns a “public oral reprimand.” A second earns either a flogging or time in the headstocks. A third violation results in banishment from the island or death if the violator refuses to leave.

Do these penalties seem harsh, especially for just a “Z,” which isn’t used often? Remember that the High Council sees the use of the letter as a violation of the will of the great Nollop, although it’s actually a violation of the Council’s INTERPRETATION of the event. They are not open to the possibility of other meanings of the falling tile—that would border on treason—and also don’t believe a test proving it fell simply because the adhesive used a century ago could no longer hold the tile in place.

Soon more tiles fall from the monument as the adhesive continues to fail. Each time, the Council issues its edict. Nollopians have a short time to adjust to the exclusion of each letter from their vocabulary and dispose of written materials containing that letter. Homes are searched for prohibited materials. Citizens become wary of each other, as any slip of speech can be reported to the Council for punishment. The library closes—no book is safe. More and more people leave the island, some willingly, others are forced to leave or be put to death. Even basic communication can be a trap, and every word must be mentally checked before uttering it to be sure it contains no prohibited letters. As more letters fall and the substitution of “safe” letters becomes more prevalent, communication also becomes an ordeal of decoding.

Ella and a few others try to find a way to stop the madness of the all-powerful Council. Only one member reluctantly entertains their pleas for sanity. The Council finally issues a challenge: if the remaining islanders can create a sentence with all 26 letters of the alphabet using only a total of 32 letters (three fewer than Nollop’s famous sentence), that will prove superiority to the great Nollop. In that case, the orders and punishments will be dropped, and life and communication on the island will return to normal.

Naturally, the Council is certain that no one can meet their challenge. They would be wrong. I will tell you that the goal is achieved, but not how or by whom, other than to say it was not done by computer. I must leave readers with some mystery and surprise!

In the end, the only letters remaining on Nollop’s monument are…you probably guessed it…LMNOP.

Readers can draw a variety of meaningful lessons from this book. One of them might involve the use of “politically correct” language that has prevailed in recent years and its sometimes dampening effect on social communication. However, this book was written in 2001, predating the current “p.c.” usage.

Probably a universal takeaway is a greater awareness of language and its use in respectful social interaction. That lesson, taught with humor, still sticks with me weeks after finishing the book. We may not face the prohibition and punishments the Nollopians did, but we can all be more careful and thoughtful about the words we use and how we use them.

I decided not to take any grand lessons from this book. For me, the joy of Dunn’s creativity with words and language, all done with humor, sometimes snidely, provided everything I wanted from it. As the letters fall from the monument and their use becomes prohibited, the words he creates by using remaining legal letters become hilarious. Dunn has created a unique tale that any lover of words and language will enjoy.

–Donna Rueff–