The Magical, Alphabetical World of Ella Minnow Pea

By Marina Halbert

Imagine you are told to write a story. Now, imagine that as you write the story, your editor begins to limit the letters you can use. At first you’re only missing a couple of consonants, maybe “X” and “Z.” But slowly, more and more letters are removed from your arsenal. In fact, by the end of your (208 page) novel, the only letters you are allowed to use are L, M, N, O, and P. Sounds tough, huh?

An awe-inspiring book of creative genius, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel Without Letters will hook you from its very start. Set in a world that worships the creator of  “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” the story is told through the correspondence of a young girl, Ella Minnow Pea. Throughout the novel, a statue inscribed with the famous quote slowly but surely loses more and more letters, which the government takes as a sign that citizens should be forbidden from the use of those members of the alphabet. Ella complies at first, but realizes quickly that limiting the letters is equivalent to limiting citizens’ speech. As punishments grow harsher and her town begins to live in an eerie silence, Ella searches for a solution. By the end of the novel, Ella is one of the only people left on the island, with most others having left to escape the brutal government that quickly developed. Throughout all of this, Ella’s notes and letters follow the law of the land, and lose more and more letters as the book continues; I mean this literally. By the end of the book, Mark Dunn only uses the letters L, M, N, O, and P.

This lipogrammatic novel holds appeal not only for linguists and English teachers, but for anyone interested in the social repercussions of censorship and examining the role of citizens in checking the government. Ella Minnow Pea will inspire an appreciation of the alphabet and our ability to use all of it, while simultaneously encouraging self-reflection. It made me ponder in what ways, other than direct censorship, does our government control our self-expression and thoughts? And, what can we do to stop it?

In the end, I absolutely loved this book. It was completely astonishing to see the flexibility and creativity Mark Dunn had in creating this epistolary novel, as he was extremely limited in his letter (and therefore, word) choices but still used more impressive diction than I’ve seen in most other books. Every time I thought I knew what direction Dunn was going, he deviated from the path, making this book not only creatively engaging and thought provoking, but also thrilling and genuinely interesting. In fact, the plot caught me off guard with how dark it was, containing twists that were genuinely shocking and, sometimes, scary (take this with a grain of salt: my threshold for scary is very low). I cannot recommend Ella Minnow Pea enough. Reading this linguistic’s dream was one of the most interesting and engaging experiences I’ve ever had, and I’m sure you will feel the same after finishing the sensational story.