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Letters Missing Letters in: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

“For the present, it is easier for us to turn away. Our repulsion, you see, will not spur us to revolt until this plague moves much closer to home.”

Ella Minnow Pea

84 Charring Cross Rd meets Farenheit 451 in this captivating story encompasses a brilliant concept with significant themes worthwhile discussing.

The covers shown are for the hardback and paperback versions. I first saw the green cover, and never thought to pick up the book because it didn't look like adult fiction. This is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover. I was thoroughly intrigued by the description that appears at the bottom of the green cover only: "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." This translates to a fable/story told in correspondence/letters that progressively leaves out alphabetical letters.

Ella Minnow Pea lives on Nollop, a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina, named after Neville Nollop - the creator of the pangram (a sentence or phrase composed of all the letters of the alphabet), the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When letters begin falling off the monument erected in Nollop's honour, the island's council decides that it is a sign from beyond his grave to remove that letter from the alphabet. The council takes action. Not only is it forbidden to use the letter in speech and writing, but doing so is punishable by time in the stockade, prison, public flogging or being exiled from the island. Ella determines to save her town and community from the council's censorship and increasing totalitarian ruling - but how?

The correspondence between Ella, her family and friends continues through the whole book, while pretty much adhering to the council's directives about which letters to delete from the language (including one's names). The way the alphabetical letters are used or omitted in the missives reflects the varied and changing mindsets of the characters, revealing emotions to include anger, rebellion and fear. They also reveal the degradation in communication, as messages become less descriptive and more rudimentary, and erase the distinct voice of the individual.

Despite the deep and dark undercurrents of this fable, the tone is light and entertaining, with mentions and brief description of flogging and fear, but nothing gratuitous or horridly disturbing. It's easily accessible for anyone reading George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm or Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, and leaves the reader thinking but feeling optimistic.

While abecedarians and linguaphiles may be especially delighted by this thought-provoking and entertaining epistolary novel, it is a fascinating tale for fans of Shirley Jackson, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and stories dealing with totalitarianism and censorship.

If you liked this title, check this blog for posts about lipogrammatic and epistolary novels.

In the meantime, you might like find these past posts interesting:

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson


The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury


The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot by Colin Cotterill



What I discovered in my research is that it appears that Neville Nollop is the fictional creator of the quick brown fox pangram. Robert Baden-Powell first used the pangram in 1908 to teach signaling to Boy Scouts. This pangram was later used in a Moscow - Washington message in 1962 as a test of their communication system.

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