Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Could You Write a Book Review Without the Letter “Z?”


No doubt you could. Probably you could write quite a good review while avoiding any other particular letter of the alphabet, or even, if you were attentive, several letters. Yet what would be the effect on your composition? You might focus on each word in a new way, noticing and enjoying its sounds, and vocabularizing creatively, but the effort of constantly redirecting around forbidden words would surely also sap your will to write. Especially if the penalty for “slipping” was prohibitively severe.

In Ella Minnow Pea, a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable (or, in paperback, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel without Letters), Mark Dunn’s 2001 story, the nature of language and censorship are explored. This YA, epistolary novel is set in the fictional island nation of Nollop. The inhabitants of said island eschew technology and revel in language. They revere Nevin Nollop, creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” and have in fact erected a statue to that celebrity with a tile for each letter of his famous sentence. When, one day, a letter tile falls down, the council of Nollop reaches a strange decision. They announce that Nollop is speaking from beyond the grave, and that he wants the islanders to ban the letter that has fallen. Anyone caught writing the letter or speaking a word in which it is found will be subject to severe penalties. Of course, the rest of the tiles do not stay put, and the council’s decrees become more and more paralyzing to the culture and daily life on their island.  

I have already confessed to a love of epistolary novels, and this one makes delightful use of its format. It might seem difficult to create an absorbing story with likable characters who are slowly losing their ability to lawfully communicate, but Dunn manages. He does an excellent job of portraying individuals to whom words, language, and ideas are important. The book focuses on plucky female protagonists, the human response to an oppressive regime, and the resiliency of a brave human spirit.

The book is clearly a fable, because the focus of censorship and oppression (individual letters of the alphabet) is so utterly random and ridiculous. This allows the author to address how people respond to censorship and oppression in general. I must admit that I have read so many books with an anti-religious bias that I am a little sensitive to that topic. I did notice, with raised eyebrows, that the language in which a misguided council member rejects scientific evidence seems awfully… well, awfully reminiscent of how an evolutionist might perceive a creation/evolution debate. The climax also revolves around blind chance, and the characters draw great significance from this fact. If one wanted to, one could interpret this story as an allegory of belief-driven oppression versus the freedom of secular goodness. However, several characters do comment that they preferred the island’s previous allegiance to God over the new religion of Nollop. The island’s “God” is left vague and irrelevant, but the inclusion of such a mention suggests that the author does not wish his book to appear necessarily anti-faith.

I enjoyed this slim little book. I liked the language, the format, and the fascinating exploration of both. I do not agree entirely with what seems to be the message of the fable, but the author does make thoughtful points that are worth pondering. 

Linking-up to Housewifespice.


  1. Thanks for contributing your links to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. I like the idea of a blog where one over-analyzes things since I have a tendency in that direction.


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