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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

This book is so clever and the characters so resilient that it is a delight to read. Ella is a young woman living with her parents on the imaginary island of Nollop (off the coast of North Carolina). The name Nollop commemorates the founder of the small nation, who was also renown for creating the pangram (sentence using all letters of the alphabet) ,“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” One day, the memorial featuring the sentence in tile on the town square loses the "z", and though many blame the 100-year-old cement adhesive, the High Council interprets the event as a spiritual message from Nollop to drop the use of "z" from all spoken and written communication. Stiff penalties await those who defy the edict. The citizenry, though proud of their wordsmithing history, confront the change with composure, but they are troubled when more letter tiles fall. Since the book is composed entirely of letters, notes, and memos, the reader sees firsthand how the Nollopians must invent in order to continue communicating. I love the paradox of whimsy and solemnity in this book. The setting at first seems mildly ridiculous, yet the implications of a restricted alphabet are compelling and merit serious contemplation.

This book bursts with a celebration of words. Savory words! It is interesting to imagine how contemporary English usage might differ in two distinct but neighboring countries like the US and fictional Nollop. The letters make enthusiastic use of new words, make-believe in our minds but valid in Nollopian English: detachation, leapdash, bandiford, multytypewritudes, posteritified, scissoresonance. Since they don’t appear in the dictionary, I just had to make my best contextual guess and move on! It was sometimes difficult to distinguish Nollopian usage from real English because the author doesn’t shrink from advanced vocabulary: I’d never heard of words like "cenotaph," "lucubrate," and "caesura."

The High Council begins as a paternalistic group armed with legislative zeal. But they quickly become totalitarians, adding religious fervor to their governance (they encourage a change from respect to reverence of Mr. Nollop). Some of the apt parallels with today’s Religious Right made me extremely uncomfortable. The High Council refuses to consider scientific evidence of the deteriorating nature of the adhesive holding the tiles on the memorial, and instead push their Almighty Nollop agenda, losing the confidence and respect of the people. The scenario brought to mind attempts by people of faith to legislate their positions on social, economic, or political questions that do not logically follow a belief in Christ’s kingdom.

The progressive abolition of letters revealed the unique structure of the English language and how we rely on a few letters to perform special functions. For example, the loss of “z” or “p” is mostly an annoyance. Words containing those letters can usually be replaced by other synonyms. But losing “d,” which is often needed to express the past tense, is a serious blow to communication. Important or not, the loss of each letter, with the subsequent scrutiny of everything written and spoken, is keenly felt. Each prohibition causes constraint and increases fear, and often leads to betrayal and alienation among neighbors. The book’s quaint setting, far from being an obstacle to credibility, heightens its thoughtfulness.

Title:Ella Minnow Pea
Author:Mark Dunn
Date published:2001
Number of pages:205


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