Ella Minnow Pea: a tale of censorship, letter by letter

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn was our book club’s latest pick. Opinions were divided on how enjoyable it is, but all agreed it is a clever depiction of authoritarianism and censorship. It reminds us just how quickly societies can fall apart.

Ella Minnow Pea is a fable, set in the imaginary island nation of Nollop.  The island is named after Nevin Nollop, its revered resident whose claim to fame was inventing the pangram ‘The Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’.  The people of Nollop love language and keenly correspond, so Nollop was a natural hero.

There is a statue to Nollop in the town centre crowned with a set of lettered tiles making up his famous pangram. When the tile featuring the letter ‘Z’ falls, the ruling High Island Council seeks a reason. They decide it is the will of Nollop. The Nollopians use of language has become complacent and Nollop seeks change.  ‘Z’ must be banned from their language.

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‘Z’ is little used so the impact is initially small, as people easily adapt their vocabulary. That’s why some people are not that concerned about the ruling. But others see it as censorship and fear the future consequences. These soon unfold as all library books have to be destroyed; only picture books survive.  All written history has gone and soon the radio transmits only wordless music.

When further tiles fall, and those letters are banned, life becomes harder. Teachers can no longer teach, businesses shut down.  The Council starts behaving like an authoritarian state, imposing harsh punishments, spying on the people and confiscating their property. They justify it all as Nollop’s will; he is now the Supreme Being. Those who believe in him blindly follow.

The epistolary form of Ella Minnow Pea enables us to track different characters as they respond to these events. Their written communications demonstrate at first hand the impact of losing the use of the letters. It is the ultimate in censorship.  ‘D’ is banished quite early on, and with it all past tenses. Humans use language to define themselves, their history and culture. Take this away and they soon become little more than howling animals.

Inevitably there is resistance. Not all believe in Nollop, including certain scientists who offer a simple explanation for the fallen tiles: the glue holding them has deteriorated. Some rebels suggest that even if Nollop is speaking, he wants them to use these letters more, not less.  Others simply see Nollop as a charlatan, a liar with a thirst for power.

As different views become entrenched, society crumbles. The people report each other’s transgressions in the use of banned letters, leading large numbers to be punished. Many leave the island, others are sent away. Of those who stay, some openly rebel and risk martyrdom. A few take up the challenge to find an alternative pangram, to prove that Nollop was not so special after all.  Will they find it before the Council’s deadline?

As the characters comply with the increasing limitations of language, their communications become harder to follow. A few of our book club members found this diminished their pleasure in reading it. Add to this the rather ludicrous tale behind the falling tiles and they felt it was all a bit contrived. Others thought it was truly original and well worth the effort.  Ella Minnow Pea is quite short, so even if not totally to your taste, it’s certainly clever and stimulates a great discussion.  I recommend it.

© Allison Hill, 2017 (excluding images)

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  1. Well, it certainly does sound like a clever idea, but it also doesn’t sound like the ‘disappearing language’ conceit could ever easily have supported so very heavy a political moral? Too clever perhaps? Or perhaps not quite clever enough? Oh, I suppose I’d better read it then! Thanks Ali xxx

  2. Maureen Edmondson

    January 30, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Thanks Allison.

    This sends a chill down my spine. How far away are we from free speech? And where is free thought when it cannot be verbalised?

    I need to find time to read more …. this may not be on my list because your commentary has probably said it all!

  3. Excellent
    summation of the book and the Book Club discussion – thanks B

  4. Maureen, Eric – Do read it and I look forward to discussing it with you both. A

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