Why Ella Minnow Pea is an Unlikely Perfect Dystopia | Book Review

If you’re no fun, you might call this book gimmicky. I call it brilliant.


If you’re no fun, you might call this book gimmicky. I call it brilliant.

About the Book:

Title: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

Author: Mark Dunn

Published: 2001

Series: [standalone]

Genre: fiction, humor, epistolary, satire

Rating: 5/5

The Premise:

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

My Thoughts:

“Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.”

I love this book because it takes a ludicrous situation and manages to use it to represent the patterns of authoritarianism through the lens of a fantastical extended metaphor while being a clever and unabashed love letter to the English language.

The book’s about a fictional island where people worship some guy who wrote “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and the government starts banning letters.

But through this whimsical situation, Dunn portrays the suffocation that comes with the loss of free speech, the problems with oligarchy, the abuse of control that can happen when leaders get drunk on power, the confusion of arbitrary legislation, citizens turning on one another out of fear, and the unquestioning veneration of a person/ideal.

Ella Minnow Pea manages to be at once a biting satire of totalitarianism and rigid theocracy and a whimsical epistolary novel about the foibles of human nature.

The Slippery Slope in Ella Minnow Pea

I think it was an interesting choice to start the book out with the Council banning the letter Z– a pretty innocuous and not exactly an indispensable letter. Could you manage without Z? I mean, sure. It might be hard at first, but really, what’s just one letter?

But as Tassie says,

“I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh-so-frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.”

The “slippery slope” can be a logical fallacy, but when it comes to issues of freedom of expression and abuse of power in general, I think there is a lot of truth to it. Once you give up something, it becomes easier and easier to go further down that path.

It’s what most dystopias are based on after all: taking a troubling situation and bringing it its logical extreme.

Freedom of Speech in Ella Minnow Pea

I’m a freedom-of-speech nut. The first amendment is one of the most important amendments, and here’s why: once you begin restricting speech, you’re opening up the possibility for some government or social group entity to restrict the truth. Once you give some entity the power to control the information you’re allowed to disseminate, you’re giving them the power to manipulate reality.

I am a huge fan of 1984, but when I first read it, I thought the whole freedom of speech/the Party dictates reality stuff was exaggerated… but then I began learning more about the extent to which totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and modern-day North Korea have actually used those kinds of tactics to completely warp citizens’ perceptions.

Um, I’m getting really distracted. Let’s get back to the book I’m supposed to be talking about right now.

So the main message of Ella Minnow Pea is about the importance of freedom of speech and the language you need to express that speech. It’s a thought experiment, and a really cleverly-written one at that. The way the book is structured is just, well, really clever. You’ll just have to read it.

The Verdict

Ella Minnow Pea is a really underrated gem that subverts a few different genres and is overall a really fun and interesting read. I hereby recommend it to everyone!

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4 comments on “Why Ella Minnow Pea is an Unlikely Perfect Dystopia | Book Review”

  1. Very interesting – I just started reading the book, thanks to your review… and the fact that I’m actually a ‘user’ of ‘quick brown fox’. The phrase itself is just a curiosity to most, or a potential clue to puzzle/cipher afficionados, but to testers of computerized communications systems, it’s actually a useful tool! In my career, I’ve typed the phrase many a time to ensure correct transmission of all letters across a communications channel.

    Trivia: For testing purposes, we start the sentence with ‘quick’ as ‘the’ is repeated later in the sentence if you put it on the front and sometimes there are character limits to consider. (I’m sure the author knew about the redundancy and chose to have two ‘the’s in the phrase for the sake of readability.)

    Liked by 1 person

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