Friday, June 18, 2010

ELLA MINNOW PEA - Mark Dunn

My friend Cindy Strietelmeier asked me if I had read this one as I suspect she knows I like the occasional quirky read. Then when doing inventory in my high school library I noticed it so I brought it home for the summer. A quick one or two afternoon book in fable form, it was not the silly escape fiction I had thought. Off-the-east-shore of the US is this fictional island country populated by people of a cerebral mentality. They pride themselves on being very educated, progressive, and they all have and use in daily discourse a high level and colorful vocabulary.

They also revere a native citizen, one Nevin Nollop for whom the country and all of the cities thereon are named. He is the one attributed with creating the pangram (verse or sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." There is a cenotaph (monument to a deceased who is buried elsewhere) of him in the city square and the phrase he is famous for resides above it. 

One day the letters one by one begin to fall off of the cenotaph. The government studies the situation and decides that it is a sign from the afterlife that the citizens are to change their way of thinking and speaking by eliminating each letter as it falls from their language. The whole story is told through letters written between the people, and most of them to or from the main character Ella Minnow Pea. Each letter is a lipogram (written work composed avoiding one or more letters) and as the book reaches a climax it gets harder to decipher the letters.

I also enjoyed the parts about the underground whose members are trying to create a new pangram. So much so that, had I not been so busy, I might have experimented with my Scrabble letters and tried it myself. As I read my mind kept straying to thoughts of how the book could be used in a classroom to spur kids to research projects. Besides the fun things like trying to compose letters without certain letters, I thought about investigating with kids such things like abuse of government power, civil rights, religious fundamentalism, and immigration.

Anyway I had fun with it.  By the end of the book the only letters left are LMNOP. Try writing a sentence with just those.

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