The title: Ella Minnow Pea
The author: Mark Dunn
Publication: Anchor Books, 2001
Got it from: The library
Word play is at the heart of this delightful little novel written entirely in letters (one of my favourite kinds). The heroine, Ella Minnow Pea (get it?), lives with her parents Amos and Gwenette Minnow Pea on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The citizens of the island revere language and one of their founding fathers, Nevin Nollop, the man who invented the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." The island has been isolated to the point where the citizens are trapped in a Victorianesque society that shuns technology. As the story opens, 18-year-old Ella writes to her cousin on another part of the island to tell her the letters of Nollop's famous pangram have started to fall off a memorial plaque in the town square. Their fall has been interpreted by the sinister High Council as a sign from the dead Nollop that the letters should be banished from the island. Use of the letters in either writing or spoken word result in the stock, a public flogging or even banishment.
As the first letter (Z) is made illegal, the word disappears from the letters and hence, the novel. As they begin to drop one by one, the citizens try to band together to help one another. Meanwhile they have to become more and more creative in their writing to avoid the "illegabeticals". It gets particularly comical toward the end of the novel when Ella and a local university student try to conduct a romance using just a handful of letters (he refers to himself as her "amigomate.") I was also amused when two of the villagers changes their names from Buzz and Zeke to L'il Tristan and Prince Valiant-the-Comely.
Lurking behind the silliness and clever word tricks is a greater theme about the blind adherence to religious cult. There is also more than a smidgeon of similarity to totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, where everyone lives in fear, neighbours turn on neighbours , and people are banished or disappear under a brutal police force. But read it how you will, this is one for us logophiles.