Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

2001. Anchor Books. Paperback. 208 pages.

From: bought it at a used book-store

Recommendation from: Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies had the review that made me add it to my to-read list, though her praise was echoed by a number of others.


As the subtitle of the book states, Ella Minnow Pea is “A Novel in Letters.”  I love the double meaning in that.  It is an epistolary novel yes, but as the story is about the enforced removal of alphabet letters from the characters’ language, the subtitle has a subtle defiance that I cherish.

The two main characters of the novel are close cousins Ella and Tassie who live on the (fictional) island of Nollop, which is located off the East Coast of the United States.  Nollop is named after the man who created the pangram: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  A pangram is a sentence or phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet.

The people of Nollop love language.  Tassie and Ella and the rest of their family write letters full of beautiful vocabulary.  The pangram of their island’s namesake is memorialized as a huge monument with each letter placed on its own tile and affixed high above Nollopton.  One day, the letter Z falls to the ground.  The ruling council decides that it is a sign that the letter should not be used any longer by citizens of Nollop.  Then – as the tiles are decrepit – more letters start falling, each to be subsequently banned.

It’s a fantastical premise and I quickly became immersed in the story.  It’s easy to love Ella and Tassie who are spirited and witty young women.  It’s also easy to love Ella’s parents, Tassie’s mother, and various other characters who enter the story.  Thus when these lovely people start getting caught using the ‘wrong’ letters, I was anxious for them. 

Ella Minnow Pea is certainly a book-lover’s book.  As letters are increasingly excised from the characters’ conversation, Ella and Tassie often give last-hurrah missives celebrating the letter whose ban is imminent.

… we will sorely miss the loss of “D” effective as of midnight tonight.  (Have you not noticed the product of my decision to dribble this dreadful diatribe with as many uses of the doomed fourth letter as possible?

p. 69

And yet, even as their vocabulary becomes increasingly pinched and squeezed, I had to admire the flexibility of language as the letter-writers bent their words to work around the new dictates.   After ten letters of the alphabet have been banned, here is an excerpt:

I am writing to people who are still here.  Who I still see in the streets, who peep at me – wall-in, porthole, portiere people.  Wanting to say something, with anxiety stilling erstwhile galloping yammers.  It is important that we say something to one another – any little thing.  We are not low-tier animals.

p. 157

This is a very clever book that I am glad I own as a re-reading will allow me to more fully savor that cleverness.

Sampling of others’ reviews:

Fluttering Butterflies – “This book is saying something about censorship, freedom of speech, totalitarian states. But it’s doing it in a very quirky, fun and light-hearted way.”

Fyrefly’s Book Blog – “It’s a fairly simple story, but the language is used to brutal but dazzling effect … you start to train your eye to watch out for slips of “forbidden” letters, start counting letters in pangrams, and start imagining your own life where you’re unable to speak without mentally spelling out each word first.”

Redlady’s Reading Room – “I found the letter writing style well done, the main characters were interesting and I wanted to know more about them and how they would survive this change of events on their island. I just didn’t enjoy the story and found it silly at times and downright annoying at others.”

Tales from the Reading Room – “The restrictions imposed by wordplay mean that Dunn doesn’t have time to develop his character portraits, and so his main characters merge, indistinguishable representatives of the human spirit to fight and withstand oppression . . . Overall, though, for wit and inventiveness combined with a provocative story, you have to ultimately admire this novel.”

things mean a lot – “Still, this tight control of communication is enough to fill Ella Minnow Pea with a pervasive sense of claustrophobia . . . Ella’s final letters are filled with a despair that is all the more raw because it cannot be articulated – and this makes them quite frightening to read.”



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7 responses to “Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

  1. Erin

    Thank you for reminding me about this book!! I had meant to read it ages ago, but it slipped my mind. I love the premise — so clever! I’m happy to hear you liked it. I’m putting it on my list now so I don’t forget it again!

  2. I had a friend who read this in high school, and she loved it; it sounds so clever and charming. I’m glad you liked it!

  3. Meg

    A book-lover’s book — yes, I’m all over this one! I remember high school students coming in for copies when I worked at a bookstore, and I never took the time to see what it was about. Glad I stumbled across your review!

  4. This is a favoite book of mine to recommend. I love that it’s short and easy and funny, and yet super-literate. Those books don’t come along every day!

  5. softdrink – It definitely seems like a book that had to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb during revision. I wonder how the author helped himself to avoid using the banned letters as he progressed in writing the book?

    Carin – It is a great book to recommend to others. I was just talking it up to a bunch of friends recently. I think the concept catches people’s attention immediately.

  6. When I was reading Ella Minnow Pea, I kept thinking, damn, without the Find function in word processing programs, it would be just about impossible to write this book. It must have been hard even with Find, but without it, massive mistakes would have been inevitable.

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