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Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was very excited to read this book when I read about it, and though it wasn't necessarily as exciting to read, it did live up to my expectations in some ways.
The story follows a group of people living on Nollop Island (named after Nevin Nollop, the "quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" guy,)somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. Nollopians are devoted to language, and though they live in contemporary times, they have little technology, and they speak like inhabitants of some antiquated English village. When the letters of Nollop's famous pangram begin dropping off of his statue in the town square, the town council begins banning the use of those letters. The first offense for using a banned letter (in writing or in speaking) is public chastisment; the second is flogging or being placed in a head-stock (you're choice!); the third is banishment on pain of death. The inhabitants must learn to function and communicate in a community that is rapidly dwindling in language and size; some learn they must fight back against oppression.
I was put off at first by the language (which was extrememly grandiose in the beginning), but I knew that it was going to provide contrast for the end, so I stuck with it. I'm glad I did. The story is told through a series of letters, so the reader gets to experience with the Nollopians the loss of each letter (they begin to jump out when someone uses one that is banned). It's fun to watch as language is chipped away and the characters become increasingly desperate finding ways to communicate. From this aspect, it is a fun and somewhat silly read.
But it's good on another level, too, in that there really is something serious going on here. In such a slim book on such a silly topic, Mark Dunn is able to get to the heart of governmental oppression and abuses of power. There are some strong statements here, and as it's sort of like seeing oppression in fast-forward (everything happens so quickly), it becomes apparent how it's the little things to pay attention to. It may seem silly to ban the letter 'z', and of little importance, but this silly little thing is a rather large sign. From that aspect, I thought the book was very successful.
It's also fun just as a lover of language. Some of the made-up words in the beginning are irritating, but in the context of the story, it works and you get used to it.
My one warning is that if you don't have a large vocabulary (not necessarily even one you use, just your understanding of language), and you are not a "word person", there's really no point in reading this, and you likely won't enjoy yourself.
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