Book Review | Ella Minnow Pea

Title: Ella Minnow Pea

Author: Mark Dunn

Publisher: Anchor

Published: 17 September 2002

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop of the coast of South Carolina. Named for Nevin Nollop, the island took their founding from him and made their own country, the author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. But one day a tile from the sentence on Nollop’s statue falls and the island’s Council comes together and bans the use of the letter “Z.” Soon more letters fall and the town is thrown into a totalitarianism regime, with Ella needing to find the solution to save the town.

I wasn’t expecting this book to be as tense as it was. While reading I kept thinking of two specific points in history, WWII, specifically the 30s before America was involved, and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Many of the feelings the townspeople are going through are ones that have been experienced the last two years. One of the characters says how all she can do is bake and that’s all she is now, then later on she ceases to speak. If someone speaks one of the forbidden letters, the first punishment is public admonition, the second is flogging or stockades, and the third is banishment. If one refuses to leave or returns, they’ll be killed. Hitler’s Germany anyone?

It was frustrating to read at times because the Council and Nollopians are removing letters because this is what Nollop would’ve wanted, as if he is speaking beyond the grave. It’s a cult! One of the council members is presented with evidence that the letters are falling due to the fact that the first people of the country used glue (not concrete) and glue deteriorates after 100 years. The member responds asking how do we know Nollop isn’t moving through the science, using science to get his message across. Again, it’s like talking to people about the pandemic.

While the themes of the book make for a great read, I found the characters to be a bit odd and the ending a little unsatisfactory. Two of the main characters are Ella and her cousin, Tassie. I was surprised when I found out that they were 18 and 19 because how they were speaking to each other (tone nor really words) felt more like 13-16 year olds. That brings up another point in that the novel itself felt a bit of a let down. While the letters do disappear from the book as they do from the statue, the townspeople start using higher-level vocabulary or using 10 words when before it would’ve been 2. At the end, the council actually releases that people can use a conglomeration of the legal letters to get their meaning across, which made the ending difficult to read at times. I thought the author was trying to be a bit too high-brow overall and show off his vocabulary skills with writing a book like this.

The townspeople come together to fight against the Council and Nollopians and are given a task: if they can come up with a sentence with all 26 letters of the alphabet, using only 32 letters, then the Council’s previous laws will be reversed. Ella is the one to submit the sentence to the Council but it came in a letter her father left Ella and her mom before he was banished. Everyone comes back to the town and now what. There wasn’t anything to tell us that the town/country learned anything or would prevent this from happening again, so what was the point of it all is my question. It was funny to find out that the sentence Ella’s dad came up with was one that a computer program came up with.

Of course, the best sentence using each letter of the alphabet is “sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.”

Happy Reading Darlings!

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