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What I thought of Ella Minnow Pea

June 23, 2021

I must read Ella Minnow Pea about once a year, there or thereabouts. It sits on my bookshelf, waiting patiently for me to pick it up. I browse through it while waiting for the kettle to boil or for my food to cook. I read a bit, and I’m astounded by it, as always, but then I put it back on the shelf, because I’m in the middle of something else, or I’ve only recently finished reading it and I ought to read something new before revisiting old favourites. But once in a while, I’ll sit down with it and keep reading, and I’ll see it through to the end. And it drives me nuts every time. It’s a wonderful book, wonderfully well written, but it gets me very angry.

In case you’re not familiar with it: an island state off the Carolina’s reveres a former island celebrity, Nollop, who, island wisdom has it, invented the famous pangram, ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’. One night, the letter Z falls from a cenotaph that commemorates the pangram. The island council decrees this is Nollop, speaking from beyond the grave, telling the people of the island that they must live without Z in their lives. A law is passed, and the people of the island duly ditch the letter Z from everything they read and say, including every book that contains words that contains it. They just on the cusp of integrating this change into all they do, when another tile falls. Then another. And so begins the disintegration of the culture, laws, and indeed the sanity, of the island.

The book is an epistolary, namely it is told through letters and notes passed between the island’s inhabitants, including the titular Ella Minnow Pea. As the story develops, and more and more tiles fall from the cenotaph, the characters have to live with less and less of a vocabulary, with all the subsequent damage it does to the way they speak, to their relationships, to their well-being, to democracy. Losing Z means losing every book in the library. Losing D means losing the past tense. Communication becomes ever harder. The penalties for using the banned letters are dramatic – first, official censure; then the stocks or the lash; then, finally, exile. And should breaches of the law continue: death! The town council become ever more self-aggrandising, taking the turmoil as an opportunity to further their own goals and feather their own nests.

Ella Minnow Pea demonstrates that making changes to society based on dogma can cause the whole thing to collapse. New believers become zealots. Chancers and charlatans operate undercover of ideology to help themselves to the hard-earned belongings of their fellow islanders. Many people leave the island, but there is never a quorum of dissenters who can find a platform to stand against them. The people of the island discover it impossible to call the council out for its insanity. Even in the face of kleptocracy and cronyism, they cannot muster the platform to bring the government down.

For Nollop, you could say Brexit. It’s exactly the same. Or austerity. Or extreme market forces. These campaigns that are forced on the nation under the guise of the will of the people, or the divine right of the supreme being, or whatever the excuse, that stomp over the norms of civil society and destroy progress, are ultimately a mechanism for greedy, vicious men to make substantial amounts of money and lord it over neighbours they never liked.

Ella Minnow Pea is a dystopian novel right up there with 1984, Brave New World and Handmaid’s Tale. It is by turns harrowing and charming, but mostly it makes me angry. Fundamentalists will get us killed, whether they are hard right, hard left, religious fervents, or whatever. If you put zealots in charge of the decisions a nation has to make, expect catastrophe.

Ella Minnow Pea is my first choice whenever asked for a fiction recommendation. And I keep coming back to it because it resonates with the times in which we’re living.

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