Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters
by Mark Dunn
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Had never heard of this book or the author before it was given to me as a gift – my wonderful wife thought this little paean to the english language and vocabulary would be something I would enjoy. Now I’m not exactly known for my verbiage though for anyone who reads my reviews, verbosity is not out of my wheelhouse.
The basic story is quite simply the tale of a fictional island nation called Nollop neighbouring the United States, founded on the love for language and in our modern world it’s a bit of an anachronism where they don’t rely on or have the culture for phones and t.v’s and the like. The titular Ella is one of the authors of the letters through which the story is told and the core character. The letters from the foot of the statue of town hero Nevin Nollop start to fall one by one and the town council starts to outlaw the offending alphabets as they do – leading to ever escalating challenges as people try to adapt on pain of admonishment, flogging, the stocks and eventually banishment.
Speaking for myself, I very much enjoyed my time reading this book. Author Mark Dunn has done a remarkable job with the story.
The entire tale is told in the somewhat unconventional manner of letters, notes and the like as it’s not replete with chapters and segments and the like as is the norm, all of which makes it quite a speedy and interesting experience compared to normal narrative styles in novels. In fact I give the author extra points for the progression of the emotional heft in the story – we begin the book with a light and breezy tone and then as events progress, there’s a sharp but restrained escalation of intensity and yet somehow Dunn managed to keep the overall book feel… almost pleasant.
We moved into territory of people losing homes, of public flogging being mentioned and a society crumbling and somehow… Basically a remarkable aspect of this book for me was that aside from the latter events, we have neighbours turning on each other, we have paranoia, we have injustice and the book felt like it was replete with social and cultural commentary and yet, somehow Dunn managed to keep me, the reader, not getting worked up and angry and stressed in the process; it was impressive.
What was just as impressive was his ability to give personality to the characters through the letters and notes exchanged by them all, certainly more than I had expected. Each one seems to have a distinct voice as you make your way through the story.
To top it all off, the whole reading experience was a highly entertaining exercise in linguistics that, for me, remained fun from start to end as the words went from quality english to acrobatic language as a mish-mash of thesaurus usage and clever substitution and then as more and more letters disappear from the lexicon, the substitutions become more creative until there are whole new words being made up and there’s this under-current of silliness that is a fallout of the unavoidable laws and circumstance given the goings-on in Nollop.
Overall I would say that though the book is definitely one of a kind in my reading experience. It’s smart, funny and short and sweet. It’s optimistic and hopeful in the face of many socio-cultural challenges that we are facing in many parts of the world today and the themes of censorship, fundamentalism and more – themes that are current for me today and hit home a lot more than I expected from such a simple little book, but they are themes that are also timeless and universal throughout history.
This is definitely a rare little gem of a book and I not only enjoyed it but see myself coming back to it down the road – very much a book I would recommend to people.
View all my reviews