Friday, July 29, 2011

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (CBR Book #21)

Do you know why "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is a well-known phrase? It's a panagram...or a phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet. A quick look at wikipedia reveals the phrase's earliest known appearance is in the late 1800's, but its author isn't mentioned.

Well...look no more! Mark Dunn has the story of its creator in this cleverly written book, which is presented as a collection of letters. Most of the letters are written to or from Ella, and other members of the Pea family. Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop derives its name from Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the panagram.

Everything in Nollop seems pleasant. It has a small town feel with a council that governs the island's business. There is even a monument to Nollop including the famous phrase. Everything is business as usual, until lettered tiles begin to fall off of the monument. The town council interprets this as a sign from Nollop himself; it appears that Nollop wishes the letter to be removed from speech and writing, they surmise. The first letter to fall is relatively harmless enough, a Z. After the council decrees that each letter is not to be used anymore, the use of the letter is removed from the book as well. As the characters write their letters to each other, they struggle with avoiding certain words. As more and more tiles fall off the sign and their use is banned, the writings become more and more ludicrous.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the D falls off the sign. As each message written has the day listed, it becomes necessary to assign new names to each day. Tuesday becomes Toes, Wednesday becomes Wetty, Thursday Thurby. During the month of November, as more and more letters fall off the sign, the name of the month changes accordingly until each note has a new word for November, "nosegay," "no-trump," "norepinephrine" and "noopers" are just some of them.

Eventually, speaking and writing becomes so difficult, the council passes a provision that states, in written form only, "hear twins" may be used as a proxy for certain letters. In other words, words may be written phonetically with the remaining allowed letters. So "farewell" can be written as "pharewell," "you" as "ewe" and so on. But even this proves difficult as creative substitutions must still be made. "Phrents" becomes the closest thing to the words "friends," "achieve" becomes "asheeph." Here's an example of a sentence near the end of the book, "Tee otts are not goot," which is "the odds are not good." Of course "hear twins" can only be used in writing because when spoken, one wouldn't know if you were actually using the banned letters or not. Eventually, more and more lettered tiles fall off the monument until only 5 remain, LMNOP.

Is your head spinning? The good news is, this progression is gradual, and although the book becomes harder and harder to read, it also becomes sillier and sillier. And you get used to it. And by this time, you're invested in Enterprise 32. This is the task assigned to those who oppose the council. In an effort to prove Nollop isn't divine, as the council has come to believe, the remaining townspeople work to create a panagram in 32 letters. This would beat Nollop's panagram by 3 letters, proving that any mere mortal could do what he did, and better.

At this point, you may have some questions, like, "what do you mean by remaining townspeople?" and "how could they work on a panagram if there are letters banned from use?" Well...all those questions and more would be answered if you read the book! And I definitely recommend it if you have an interest in words, word play, word puzzles, or anything related to that. Even if you don't, it's a great book, adeptly written, and entertaining.

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