Work: «Ella Minnow Pea»
Author: Mark Dunn
Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing
Genre: Epistolary fiction
Format: Hard cover
This is a book which my daughter discovered a year or two ago. It deserves a wide recommendation to read. I you haven’t read it yet and you want to enjoy the story I will suggest take my word of a good read and stop here. Don’t continue unless you don’t mind if I give too much information and you get spoiled. Important details of the plot development are discussed.
It is about a fictional island and nation in front of South Carolina, USA, where it inhabitants are particularly devoted to the language, English in this case. The capital city (or maybe just a small town) has a statue in honor to his founding father, Nevin Nollop. At the base of his statue, the pangram (a sentence which include all the alphabet letters) «The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog» is displayed with tiles. After more than 100 years that mosaics began to fall.
Something that could be considered trivial for others is seen in the nation of Nollop as something unusual and with the character of a national event, which forces the High Council of government to meet and deliberate on the event. However, what happens many times in the human environment occurs: the event is attributed a divine nature and as signal.
Of course, the real reason for the fall is the natural deterioration of the material used as an adhesive for the mosaics that contain the letters. In a short time another and another letter fall and in each fall laws are enacted to remove the letter from the language, forcing the inhabitants to resort to substitutes. As the idea, from the beginning, is ridiculous for many, the island’s authorities are forced to force the population to abide by their resolutions, which leads them to commit abuses of power. Little by little exiles, forced or by will, are leaving the island leaving behind their possessions and increasing the greed of those who remain. In an attempt to make the High Government Council see reason, a strange challenge is established (in order to demonstrate that the divine attribution of the phrase and its creator has been exaggerated) by proposing the search for another pangram.
The whole story is told in the form of letters, notes, and wrote communiqués, which allows us to appreciate more the degradation of language and the limitations that this imposes on the communication of the Nollopians.
Although it is a fable and a work of fiction, the truth is that the essence of the story is not only found throughout human history but we can still see it in our advanced days of digital communications. Authorities making use of the discourse of a superior power of which they are representatives and thereby justifying the first abuses against the population. Most societies voluntarily submit to the designs of their rulers, even if they do not agree with them; partly out of fear, partly out of the obedience that their civic education obliges them to respect. So, it initiates a vicious circle in which the power that the authorities experience forces them to seek more power and perpetrate what they have achieved.
While reading this work I couldn’t avoid remember other stories, such as «1984» and «Animal Farm» by George Orwell, and political events such as the Nazi regime (or other authoritarian regimes of Latin America and, more recently, the rise to power of López Obrador here in Mexico), because the essence of such stories or facts is the degradation of public knowledge and culture. In «1984», the English language is decimated to prevent people from developing complex thoughts. History teaches us that dictatorial states begin by prohibiting the advancement of science and restricting access to culture. The Nazis and the German arrogance of that era branded Einstein’s work «Jewish science» and despised it, contributing to their eventual loss of the war. Now in Mexico we read how the government authorities dedicated to the scientific advancement of the country make statements and catalog what previous administrations did as «neoliberal science» that only served the interests of enrichment and subjugation of the population. At the same time we see the president, at the beginning of the pandemic, make statements in which he hides behind amulets as protection against the disease.
But hey, I’m starting to get off topic. Returning to this book, I must say that it not only shows the richness of the English language but also shows how important language is in order to express our ideas and communicate with others. When this power is restricted our ability to communicate is diminished. This is something that many do not understand when they are corrected in their verbal or written expression. Most take these corrections badly, they fail to see that when one is not precise with the language, it leaves the interpretation of the message to the recipient of the language. Many respond to this «well, but you understood me, right?» without realizing that not even they themselves can say with certainty that their message was understood.
This is not only a good book to learn many uncommon words of the English language but also to appreciate much of its phonetics, and some linguistic concepts. It is an easy book to read at first but little by little it becomes more complicated due to the disappearance of the letters of the alphabet. Finally, the story ends with a new pangram, one that passes unnoticed on page 132. The discovery of the phrase allows the protagonist of the story to demonstrate how false and ridiculous was what caused the nightmare that her nation lived.