About 15 months ago, I got a gift from a lady at my book group: Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn. Fast forward a bit, and I finally got around to it, and found it a surprisingly brilliant small book.
I did know Ella Minnow Pea‘s main, and most original, ‘gimmick’, if you will – that Mark Dunn gradually lost a, b, c, so on and so forth, throughout his book – and had thought that it was simply a witty structuring and a prolonging of a trick. It had a possibility of growing a touch dull or awkward (thought I) but was still worth trying out.
And, it turns out, my worry was wholly without basis. Ella Minnow Pea is a fairly brilliant out-working of a good trick – but it is also dark and disturbing, on occasion, and not at all a throwaway, whimsical sort of book. I hadn’t thought it would turn out so dark…
Dunn’s story all occurs on an island known as Nollop, in honour of Mr. Nollop, famous for composing an important pangram – which you might know (follow this link.) I don’t know if Nollop is fictitious or not – Wiki is willfully ignoring him, if not – but Nollop is akin to a god for folk on his island. So much so, that Town Councillors await his laws from on high – although Nollop is, sadly, long lost to this mortal world. His command is, (so Councillors say), shown by Nollop Island’s local bust of his body – or, particularly, wording put by a sculptor on it, of Mr. Nollop’s pangram. As parts of its wording fall off, Councillors claim that it is a dictat from Mr. Nollop, that island inhabitants must drop that part of vocabulary – by mouth or by writing. If inhabitants do not comply: a warning for a first infraction, whipping for an additional slip, and banishing from Nollop for a third.
At first, as ‘z’ falls from Nollop’s famous pangram, nobody thinks much about it. It will not significantly adjust island inhabitants’ communication – for how much do folk say ‘z’ anyway?
As ‘q’ follows ‘z’, and ‘j’ follows ‘q’, things start to grow in difficulty – and angst among inhabitants, many of whom unwittingly infract Nollop’s laws, with postliminary warning, whipping – or having to sail away from Nollop for good. Many Nollopians opt to abandon an unhappy island voluntarily…
Fourth to go is ‘d’, which brings with it appalling frustration. Ella Minnow Pea all consists of writing from inhabitant to inhabitant, mum to child, aunt to young girl – scrawlings which Councillors scan for contraband words, but nothing apart from that, so this lady’s inclusion of painful or incautious topics won’t occasion Councillors burning or taking a communication:
My sweet Mittie, it is strange, so terribly strange how taxing it has become for me to speak, to write without these four illegal letters, but especially without the fourth. I cannot see how, given the loss of one letter more, I will be able to remain among those I love, for surely I will misstep. So I have chosen to stop talking, to stop writing altogether.
I found it a tiny bit difficult to work out who was who (or whom was whom, mayhap) always, but Ella Minnow Pea is primarily about a girl with that lmnop-sounding alias, maintaining a campaign against Nollop’s Councillors – trying (with similarly stubborn island folk) to craft a rival to Nollop’s pangram, which will (curiously) abolish Nollop Island’s Town Council’s dominant control of vocabulary.
It was surprisingly moving, actually. I think Dunn might aim for Ella Minnow Pea to imply an analogy with a Fascist nation, or any sort of dictatorship which bans individual autonomy. It was chilling, as inhabitants of Nollop lost rights, all books in Nollop’s library – burnt, straightaway, for invariably having ‘z’ – and, following from that, inhabitants lost all availability for articulation.
As I said at this post’s start – Ella Minnow Pea is surprisingly dark – but not gratuitously so at all.
Mark Dunn isn’t original in writing a book which avoids using a particular part of A-Z – in fact, a book using this cunning trick is known as a ‘lipogram‘ (Dunn’s book is, if you will, lipogrammatic) – but not many authors could discard so many words and still craft a story so brilliant, almost as though this linguistic loss had no ability to limit his writing or imagination. Only Dunn could craft a book so moving and full of wisdom, with this handicap – thank you so much, Ruth, for giving it to Simon’s Book Gift Mountain.
And now, that twist – did you spot that this blog post – I think! – was built (apart from citations and quoting ‘Ella Minnow Pea‘ in full), without using any ‘e‘s at all…? Not with Dunn’s brilliant cunning at doing so, although I must admit that it was oddly tiring!
Congratulations, if you did spot that!