Monday, 5 May 2008

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea is a first novel by Mark Dunn who is in fact a successful writer of over 25 plays. The novel structure is epistolary, which means that the story unfolds via letters between the characters. This is supposed to add greater realism to the story and demonstrate differing points of view without recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator. The approach was a popular 18th century device but mostly abandoned for most of the 19th and mid 20th century with the notable exceptions of Dracula by Bram Stoke and the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Recently it has a bit of a popular revivable with works such as The Boy Next Door (2002) by Meg Cabot and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) using the format.

Ella Minnow Pea is a slim 200-page book about Nollop, an isle off the coast of South Carolina, and home to Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the well-known pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." The island folk are best imagined as a type of Amish or Plain People who are happy to be in a pre industrial idyll. Then one day tiles fall off Nevin Nollop’s statue knocking off a letter. This sets in train events in which that letter is forbidden in speech and writing on pain of punishment and eventual banishment.

The story is more then wordplay although the letters read aloud are a joy to hear. It also explores how an open accepting community gradually falls apart as neighbours turn on neighbour and as willing followers gradually also become victims. This is explored politically as free speech is lost and an increasingly power hungry elite take over and theologically as rival cults emerge and the emptiness of worshiping idols is shown. Alongside these important themes, we also see a love story unfold and a race to find a new pangram before all freedoms are lost that will reveal that Nevin Nollop’s is a fraud.

In the end, you will either like the book because of the fun wordplay and important themes or you dislike the format and the limited characterization. I am of the former camp and so strongly recommend it.


  1. One more of the first camp! I loved this book. I never had to look up so many words in the dictionary in my life!

  2. I just bought this book and can't wait to start reading it, I've heard such good things. I may have to work it in amongst all of my review and theme read books.

  3. I've never seen this book explained so well before. Now I will have to give it a read for myself. Thanks for the review.


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