Day 684: Ella Minnow Pea

Cover for Ella Minnow PeaEven though I enjoyed Mark Dunn’s unusual novel Under the Harrow, I avoided Ella Minnow Pea for some time because it sounded too gimmicky. When I finally read it, I found it mildly entertaining, but yes gimmicky, although I can see why it would amuse those with a different sense of humor than mine.

Ella Minnow Pea is a 17-year-old girl living on a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina that is not part of the United States. This island, called Nollop, is named after Nevin Nollop, the supposed author of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Nollop is the island’s most eminent native son, and there is a cenotaph containing the sentence in the middle of Nollopton.

This epistolary novel opens with a letter from Ella to her cousin Tassie in Nollopville, in which she relates that the letter z fell off the cenotaph. Soon, the island council announces that the spirit of Nollop has used this way to send the message that the letter z must be removed from all island correspondence and speech. Violation of this statute is punished severely with a third occurrence resulting in banishment. The libraries are soon closed, because no books exist without the letter z. A rebellious youth is banished almost immediately. Conveniently, the procedures for running the government are destroyed, including those for recalling the council, because they contain the banned letter. People make mistakes and are punished or banished. The radio station eventually shuts down and the newspaper struggles, because it is too difficult to avoid the letter.

Then another letter falls, then another.

It is mildly amusing to see how the characters get around the problem of the disappearing letters in their correspondence. Of course, the novel is a statement about tyranny and freedom of expression.

Dunn’s latest novel Ibid, a novel written entirely in footnotes, has good reviews for its originality. Another gimmick, and I’m not sure I’ll try it. Dunn’s interests seem to lie in inventing isolated imaginary places where over-elaborate speech is common, along with made-up words, and where the government can’t be trusted.

Have you read Ibid? What did you think of it?

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Day 622: Under the Harrow

Cover for Under the HarrowBest Book of the Week!
Under the Harrow is an unusual and imaginative novel. It is described in some write-ups as if Charles Dickens had written a modern thriller, and that description does give a sense of the novel.

Dingley Dell is a hidden valley occupied by about 11,000 people who have never been out of it. Their history relates that their ancestors were deserted as children in an orphanage during a terrible plague in 1890. With the only books available to them an old encyclopedia, the Bible, and the complete works of Charles Dickens, they have invented for themselves a very Dickensian environment, not omitting some of its evils, like a workhouse, a huge separation between classes, and a government by a privileged few. Only a few people have ever left the valley to see what is outside, and only a very few of them ever returned. Those few were promptly clapped into the madhouse, victims of a terrible mental illness.

Frederick Trimmers has lately suffered from some misgivings about the state of the dell. He is a writer for a muck-raking newspaper who sees much to improve in the dell. Lately, though, he has more personal problems. His troublesome nephew Newton, sent off by his parents to school, has run off from the dell. Newton’s father Gus soon goes after him. While they are having unexpected adventures outside, Frederick is learning disturbing things about the existence and history of the dell. Soon he begins to believe that the entire valley is in danger.

Dunn is having some fun with us while building up a fair amount of suspense. The novel is narrated in a sort of über-Victorian English. The inhabitants of the dell have almost all taken some of the silliest names from Dickens, and many of them remind us of his oddest characters. And in a moment of major action, he offhandedly remarks that the farmer in the dell purposefully left the cheese standing alone. That will give you a little idea of what you have in store, although he doesn’t overdo it. It’s about what you must expect from an author known for a novel where letters disappear one at a time from the text or another written entirely in footnotes.

There is a conspiracy, of course, and if I have a complaint, it’s about the unbelievable extent of the conspiracy and the unlikelihood, given how big Dunn makes it, that everything would come out okay. Still, I give this novel high marks for its originality and its ability to capture and hold my attention.