Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Book Group, Round ELMNOP

Yes, yes, I'm a very bad blogger. I've been very good in the past about writing up the book group selection directly after each meeting in the past, but last week, I was tired. I don't do well with time changes. I am NOT a morning person. So, I didn't blog. At all. It was rude of me. I apologize.

Anyway, Mark Dunn's Ella Minnnow Pea was far more than I was expecting from such quiet-looking book - even given it's unique premise.

In the center of Nollop there is a statue of the island country's namesake. Nevin Nollop, an aficionado of words and the inspiration of the island inhabitant's lifestyle, coined the pangram "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." As the letters from that sentence fall to the ground, the high council decides that it's a sign from the long-dead Nollop. As the letters disappear, they ban their use in print and conversation. At first the citizens humor the council, but soon, as more letters fall, it becomes more and more obvious that the council is drunk on power.

Being an epistolary (I do love the word and format. Too bad it can't spur me into actually writing letters to my grandmother. Sigh.) novel, the reader is very much part of the story. As letters become verboten, they drop away from the epistles and we, as readers, are part of the struggle. Dunn's characters are creative and have a broad vocabulary, so at first it is very clever, but as more letters are forbidden, we must work alongside them to decipher the communication. I found myself reading aloud at times.

The punishments for disobeying the government are severe, ranging from warning, to the stocks, flogging, expulsion from the island, and even death. Neighbors are reporting on neighbors. Faith becomes misguided (my favorite part), and the people are at a loss.

The only way that Dunn's novel works is we believe in this world - one where the inhabitants are very educated and skilled in communication. I found that this it what divided the book group most of all. There were two or three people who really didn't buy into the premise. They couldn't really suspend disbelief enough to accept the world. It was mentioned that because of the format, readers couldn't get close enough to feel connected to the characters. One said that she felt that she was being hit over the head with the totalitarianism. My thoughts on this are along the lines of: It's a failed utopia, people. How many dystopias are you familiar with that aren't oppressive, hmm? That's the point, innit? That the government is everywhere, in everything, unavoidable. Bit hard to escape, eh? The reader should feel that just as much as the characters. But maybe that's just me.

The novel, to me, is a love letter to language. I think it would be a wonderful book to teach. Certainly, thematically, right beside 1984. While an adult book, I have no qualms giving this to teens who are truly good readers, or anyone who aspires to write. I found it fascinating and read it in one go.


Erin said...

This book was a joy!

Little Willow said...

Ella Minnow Pea made me laugh frequently. To this day, I say, "Satto-Gatto!" (Only on occasion, I swear.)