Synopses & Reviews
Ella Minnow Pea
is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog
. Now deceased, the islanders have erected a monument to honor their hero, but one day a tile with the letter "z" falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave and the letter is banned from use. On an isalnd where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another
Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate.
"A treasure of a novel. Dunn has an incredibly fascinating and clever way of using the English language, with or without all the letters of the alphabet. This witty satire and moving fable is a must-read for everyone who loves words... and free speech!" Susan Wasson, Bookworks, Albuquerque, NM
"There's the whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea." The Christian Science Monitor
"A love letter to alphabetarians and logomaniacs everywhere." Myla Goldberg
"A curiously compelling...satire of human foibles, and a light-stepping commentary on censorship and totalitarianism." The Philadelphia Inquirer
"This exceptional, zany book will quickly make you laugh." Dallas Morning Herald
"Ella Minnow Pea is a witty fable, but it's also a satire about censorship among other things....[T]he book should give us plenty to think about." Detroit Free Press
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.
*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet
About the Author
Mark Dunn is the author of more than twenty-five full-length plays. Belles and Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain have together received over 150 productions throughout the world, and Dunn has been the recipient of several national playwriting awards. He is currently playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company and the Community Theatre League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Originally from Memphis, he now lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Mary. Ella Minnow Pea is his first novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. In what ways is Ella Minnow Pea
unconventional? How is it more like a fable than a novel? What characteristics does it share with other fables? Does it offer a clear moral?
2. Why has Mark Dunn chosen to tell this story through letters rather than a more straightforward narrative? What does Dunn gain by eschewing a single narrative voice in favor of many characters writing to one another about the events that beset their island-nation? What ironies are involved in writing letters about the disappearance of the letters of the alphabet?
3. In response to the first proclamation proscribing the use of the letter “Z,” Tassie warns, “it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness” [p. 10]. In what sense can Ella Minnow Pea be read as a satire of censorship and the restriction of free speech?
4. All the inhabitants of Nollop are forced into linguistic contortions to avoid being prosecuted by the High Council, substituting words like “cephalus” for “head” and “sub-terra” for “underground” [p. 99]. What are some of the other more amusing verbal acrobatics they are forced to perform?
5. Nate Warren suggests that Nollop was a “charlatan” and a “con man” and that the pangram-“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”-responsible for his divine status may have been stolen from someone else. What is Dunn suggesting here about the ways in which human societies venerate and mythologize sacred texts and heroic ancestors?
6. What strategies do the islanders use to protest, oppose, and finally overthrow the tyranny of the High Council? How do these strategies create suspense in the novel?
7. When council representatives come to confiscate Rory Cummels property, they tell him they are only doing the will of Nollop and that “There is no other Supreme Being but Nollop” [p. 121]. Seen in light of recent events, in the Middle East and elsewhere, can the novel be read as a commentary on religious authoritarianism? What does the novel suggest about the dangers of humans assuming they know Gods will with absolute certainty?
8. Ella Minnow Pea dwells heavily on the theme of communication-reading, writing, and talking. What is Dunn suggesting by having the members of the High Island Council read the falling letters as signs-supernatural communications from Nollop-which ultimately make communication nearly impossible? What does the novel as whole say about the nature and purpose of communication and community?
9. How important are the love relationships in the novel-for example those between Tassie and Nate and between Rory and Mittie-to the main action? How do they enhance the plot?
10. Tassie writes that she longs to “live across the channel. . . . With telephones that actually work, and television and computers and books-all the books one could ever hope to read” [p. 32]. What does the novel imply about the dangers of trying to create a utopian society? What examples of intolerant societies-religious or otherwise-exist in the world today? Is the message of this novel relevant to those situations?
11. What is the significance of Amos Minnow Pea writing, quite by accident, a sentence which surpasses Nollops illustrious pangram? In what way does this undermine the divine value that the high council attributes to Nollops sentence?
12. At the end of the novel, Ella suggests a memorial to those who suffered from the High Councils tyranny: “a large box filled with sixty moonshine jugs-piled high, toppling over, corks popping, liquor flowing. Disorder to match the clutter and chaos of our marvelous language. Words upon words, piled high, toppling over, thoughts popping, correspondence and conversation overflowing” [p. 206]. Why is this an appropriate memorial? In what ways is language chaotic? In what ways is it ordered and restrictive? Why is Ella comparing liquor and conversation in this passage?
13. How does Dunn manage to make Ella Minnow Pea both a whimsical fable and a serious anti-authoritarian satire? What elements of the novel seem comical or lighthearted? What elements seem more pointed? How well does the author integrate them into the story?
“Theres the whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea
.” -The Christian Science Monitor
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Mark Dunns Ella Minnow Pea. We hope they will offer you fruitful ways of thinking and talking about the novel that Publishers Weekly called “a whimsical fable, in which Dunn brilliantly demonstrates his ability to delight and captivate.”