Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Ella Minnow Pea
  • Written by Mark Dunn
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385722438
  • Our Price: $14.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Ella Minnow Pea

Buy now from Random House

  • Ella Minnow Pea
  • Written by Mark Dunn
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781101911778
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

A Novel in Letters

Written by Mark DunnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mark Dunn


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 30, 2014
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-1-101-91177-8
Published by : Anchor Knopf
Ella Minnow Pea Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Ella Minnow Pea
  • Email this page - Ella Minnow Pea
  • Print this page - Ella Minnow Pea


Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet



The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog


Sunday, July 23

Dear Cousin Tassie,

Thank you for the lovely postcards. I trust that you and Aunt Mittie had a pleasant trip, and that all your stateside friends and paternal relations are healthy and happy.

Much has happened during your one-month sojourn off-island. Perhaps your Village neighbors have apprised you. Or you may have glanced at one of the editions of The Island Tribune that have, no doubt, accumulated on your doorstep. However, I will make the safest assumption that you have yet to be offered the full account of certain crucial events of the last few days (tucked away as you and your mother are in your quiet and rustic little corner of our island paradise), and inform you of the most critical facts pertaining to such events. You'll find it all, if nothing else, quite interesting.

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.

This aforementioned gleaning-this is important.

Many in town were in attendance at this critical meeting. Olive, whom the laundress corps elected to attend as our representative/observer, given the need for a nearly full contingent of workers at the launderette on this particular day, returned much later than expected to report the have-and-say of the lengthy session, specifically with regard to the aforementioned issue and question before the Council.

I must own that we were quite ataken by the Council's initial reaction to the incident, most of us regarding it as mere happenstance. The Council, on the other hand, sought with leapdash urgency to grasp sign and signal from the loss, and having offered themselves several possible explanations, retired with all dispatch to closed-door chambers for purpose of solemn debate and disposition.

In so doing Most Senior Council Member Willingham and his four fellow counciliteurs left themselves scant room for the possibility that the tile fell simply because, after one hundred years, whatever fixant had been holding it in place, could simply no longer perform its function. This explanation seemed quite the logical one to me, as well as to my fellow laundresses, with the single exception of one Lydia Threadgate who holds the Council in bloated esteem due to a past bestowal of Council-beneficence, and who would not be dissuaded by a healthy dose of our dull-brass-and-pauper's-punch brand of logic.

However, in the end, our assessments and opinions counted for (and continue to count for) precious little, and we have kept our public speculation to a minimum for fear of government reprisal, so charged with distrust and suspicion have the esteemed island elders (and elderess) become following last year's unfortunate visit by that predatory armada of land speculators from the States, harboring designs for turning our lovely, island Shangri-la into a denatured resort destination for American cruise ships.

With the Council in high conference for the succeeding forty-eight hours, the washboard brigade made at least two pilgrimages to town center, there to gaze up at the much revered cenotaph and its salt-wind-eroded statuary likeness of our most venerated Mr. Nevin Nollop-the man for whom this island nation was lovingly named-the man without whom this shifting slab of sand and palmetto would hold paltry placement in the annals of world history. We take significant pride here in town as you and your fellow villagers, no doubt, do as well, there in your green canopied hills to the north of us-pride in the man and his legacy, such legacy immortalized in tiled bandiford on the crown of the pedestal upon which his sculpted semblance stands: T-H-E Q-U-I-C-K B-R-O-W-N F-O-X J-U-M-P-S O-V-E-R T-H-E L-A-Z-Y D-O-G. Of course, now, without the tile bearing the letter "Z," the phrase "lazy dog" has become "la*y dog."

How different the world would be today if not for the sentence which the lexically gifted Mr. Nollop issued forth! How we cherish his contribution to the English-speaking world of one short sentence that employs with minimal repetition each of the twenty-six letters of our alphabet!

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

For this, Mr. Nollop was deserving of nothing short of Nobel. He received, instead, as you must remember from Mrs. Calliope's island history class, little recognition beyond these familiar shores. Yet remember that here we made up for the lack of global acclaim by honoring him with this imposing statue. And later the acclaim did come-posthumously, alas-but eventually and ultimately through the gratitude of the multypewritudes.

Pop volunteered to repair the tile and return it to its rightful place. His offer was summarily rejected. Rejected, as well, was an offer put forth by members of the Masons Guild to restore the entire monument to its former polished sheen and fettle, such restoration to include the careful removal and refastening of each of the thirty-four remaining century-old tiles.

But along these lines the Council would entertain no offers or suggestions whatsoever. In the words of Councilmistress La Greer Houston, "There was, without doubt, purpose to the tumble: this event constituting, in my belief, a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop's wishes. Mr. Nevin Nollop speaks to us from beyond the grave, my fellow Nollopians. We will listen with open ears, discern his intent, and follow those wishes accordingly."

On Wednesday, July 19, the Council, having gleaned and discerned, released its official verdict: the fall of the tile bearing the letter "Z" constitutes the terrestrial manifestation of an empyrean Nollopian desire, that desire most surely being that the letter "Z" should be utterly excised-fully extirpated-absolutively heave-ho'ed from our communal vocabulary!

Henceforth, use of the arguably superfluous twenty-sixth letter will be outlawed from all island speech and graphy. It appears that this is how Mr. Nollop chooses to reward the islanders who drew him and his brilliance to their collective bosom: by issuing this directive, by sitting fully upright upon his bier, as it were, and ordering us to communicate using only the twenty-five letters that remain.

And we, as his grateful servants (serving the memory of his greatness) have been called by High Council to obey. Under penalties to be determined by the aforementioned Council.

On Friday, July 21, those penalties were decided. They are as follows: to speak or write any word containing the letter "Z," or to be found in possession of any written communication containing this letter, one will receive for a first offense, a public oral reprimand either by a member of the island Law Enforcement Brigade (known with trembling affection as the L.E.B.) or by member of its civilian-auxiliary. Second offenders will be offered choice between the corporal pain of body-flogging and the public humiliation of headstock upon the public square (or in your case, the village commons). For third offense, violators will be banished from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of Council will result in death.


My dear Cousin Tassie, I could not believe what I heard-still cannot-yet it is all frighteningly true. Would that itty Alice had taken the crumbles of that terrible tile under cover of darkness to one of our masons and had it reassembled and refastened, without anyone being the wiser!

And yet, truly, there are moments-brief moments-in which I entertain the thought that perhaps there may exist some thin thread of likelihood that the Council may have correctly read the event. That as ludicrous, as preposterous as it seems, the fallen tile may indeed be communication from our most honored and revered Mr. Nollop. Nevin Nollop may, in fact, be telling us exactly what the Council singularly believes (for I understand the five members to be clearly of one mind in their belief). That having absented himself from the lives of his fellow islanders for lo these one hundred and seven years, the Great Nollop now rouses himself briefly from his eternal snooze to examine our language and our employment of it, and in so doing rouses us from our own sleepy complacency by taking this only marginally important letter from us. There is that very real, although admittedly microscopic, possibility, my dear cousin. For, with the exception of the use of the letter in reference to itself and its employment in the word "lazy" affixed in permanence to its partner "dog," I have, in scanning the text of my epistle to you thus far, discovered only three merest of uses: in the words "gaze," "immortalized," and "snooze." Would you have lost my meaning should I have chosen to make the substitutions, "looked," "posteritified," and "sleep"? What, my dearest Tassie, have we then lost? Very little. And please note that a new word would have been gained (posteritified) in the process! Perhaps I may actually grow to embrace this challenge as others, no doubt, are preparing to do themselves.

The edict is to take effect at the moment of midnight cusp on August 7/8. In the days remaining we are permitted to zip, zap and zoop to our blessed hearts' content. Mum, Pop and I are planning a party that evening to bid farewell to this funny little letter. I wish so much that you and Aunt Mittie could be in attendance. We will welcome in a new era. What it holds for us, I do not know, but I shall give this thing the benefit of cautious initial fealty. I leave open the slim possibility that Nollop does indeed wish it so.

With love,

Cousin Ella


Monday, July 24

Dear Cousin Ella,

New era! Posh-and-pooh! This latest development hasn't inaugurated a new era. It's only shoved us far deeper into the dungeon of Island Medievalism. We shall be wearing burlap and flour sack tomorrow, and lucubrating by candlelight because even light bulbs seem doomed now to join the official list of technological non-essentials. And now this regulation! I am bezide myself!

Your letter, I must confess, left me initially speechless, for having just returned home, neither I nor Mother was aware that any such thing had taken place! Now, hours later, I gather my thoughts together, my nerves still raw and jangled, the pen still unsteady in my trembling hand. Such an act as that presently being perpetrated on the people of this good island by our esteemed High Island Council is beyond diabolical. "Cautious initial fealty"? Have you not even considered all the consequences of losing this "funny little letter"? My friend Rachalle, who inherited our small village library with the passing of Mrs. Redfern, reminds me that with the prohibition, the reading of all books containing the unfortunate letter will have to be outlawed as well. There are, I would surmise, few, if any, volumes upon those biblio-shelves that do not contain it.

The Council, in its ridiculous wisdom, will be assigning to dust bins and community pyres centuries of the finest examples of sapience and sagacity-volume upon volume of history, literature, and thought promulgated through the medium of this cherished language of kings and knaves, scholars and clowns, to be replaced, dear Cuz, by the anemic and uninquiring ramblings of this flock of humans-become-ground-pecking sarilla geese, looking skyward only for evidence of approaching rain, then to seek cover, pecking and honking along the way when not following blindly the anserherd's wooden staff, not without complaint, but certainly without measurable rebellious spirit. On second thought, my analogy seems hardly appropriate, for in the way made most significant by our circumstances, we aren't like the sarilla geese at all! For unlike our feathered neighbors who protest the tiniest importunities against their dignity, we will keep our beaks clamped tightly shut, not emitting even so much as a peep of dissatisfaction.

I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.

We are a well-educated, well-versed, and well-spoken people whom Mr. Nollop has taught to elevate language to a certain preeminence unmatched by our vocabu-lazy American neighbors across the sound. We are a nation of letter-writers, who, in the absence of reliable telephone service or the existence of electronic mail, have cultivated our hardship far beyond all expectation. Do you honestly believe that this same Mr. Nollop would allow his fellow islanders to see their language so diminished? Or permit diminution of the islanders themselves by extension? I cannot even conceive of it. The Council is wrong. Yet, observe that none of us will risk telling it so, for fear of the consequences. Installed for life, with complex legal procedures for official recall, copies of which will soon be disappearing from the shelves of our island libraries (if they haven't already!), this council has set us up for a most difficult period without any avenue for redress. I pray that you and I both have the strength and fortitude to weather this most devastating of island storms.

If not, God help us all.

With love,

Your cousin Tassie

PS. Neither I nor Mother will be able to attend your party on the 7th. Nollop "Im"-Pass is mired again from last week's heavy rains, and the Littoral Loop has yet to be reopened following the early summer inundata. (I would avoid the Littoral Loop, in any event, as it is, while scenic, the longest distance between two points known to man.) And please understand my unwillingness to trespass upon the Pony Expresspath; the sprinting Pony brother-couriers are Mercury-swift these days, and I would prefer that my obituary not read, "She was ingloriously run over by a fleet-footed fourteen-year-old." If I am to have any choice in the matter, I would choose a less pedestrian death, thank-you-very-much.

PPS. You will notice that with the exception of the use of the letter "Z" in the anserous term "vocabu-lazy," the affectionately familiar "Cuz," and the mischievously manufactured "bezide," the letter is employed nowhere else in this missive. My point stands on principle: to choose to use the letter if I so wish it, or to choose not to; such is my right-a right now to be eradicated by stroke of High Council pen. And with that, I cloze.
Mark Dunn

About Mark Dunn

Mark Dunn - Ella Minnow Pea

Photo © Dennis Hearne

Mark Dunn is the author of more than twenty-five full-length plays. Belles and Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain have together received over 150 productions throughout the world, and Dunn has been the recipient of several national playwriting awards. He is currently playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company and the Community Theatre League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Originally from Memphis, he now lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Mary. Ella Minnow Pea is his first novel.


“There’s the whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A love letter to alphabetarians and logomaniacs everywhere.” --Myla Goldberg

“A curiously compelling . . . satire of human foibles, and a light-stepping commentary on censorship and totalitarianism.” --The Philadelphia Inquirer

“This exceptional, zany book will quickly make you laugh.” --Dallas Morning Herald
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

“There’s the whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea.” –The Christian Science Monitor

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea. We hope they will offer you fruitful ways of thinking and talking about the novel that Publishers Weekly called “a whimsical fable, in which Dunn brilliantly demonstrates his ability to delight and captivate.”

About the Guide

In Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn transports readers to the imaginary island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, inventor of the pangram (a sentence using all letters of the alphabet) “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It is an idyllic place, free from technological innovations like television and computers, where Nollopians devote themselves to the liberal arts and especially to the cultivation of language. But when a tile containing the letter “Z” falls from the monument the islanders have erected to honor Nollop and his illustrious sentence, a chain of events is set in motion which will threaten the very foundations of the Nollopian state. The High Island Council calls an emergency session to discuss the fallen letter and in it they see a sign and portent, a message from the great Nollop himself to cease all use of the letter “Z” in spoken and written communication. The Council passes a law against uttering words containing the letter; punishment for violating their strictures can lead to banishment and even death. And as further letters begin to fall, Ella Minnow Pea and her family, along with the rest of community, are forced to live under linguistic siege. Books are destroyed. Newspapers shut down. Citizens are publicly flogged, placed in stocks, their property confiscated and their lives ruined, all for slips of the tongue. But with the help of Nate Warren, a researcher living in South Carolina, the islanders decide to fight back, vowing to create a pangram even shorter and therefore more dazzling than the one for which Nollop has been elevated to divine status. The only question is: can they do it before all is lost?

Charming, intellectually engaging, and filled with fascinating wordplay, Ella Minnow Pea is a cautionary tale about authoritarianism, about the dangers of reading signs and symbols where there are none–and about the irrepressible human urge to speak freely.

About the Author

Mark Dunn is the author of more than twenty-five full-length plays, including the widely produced Belles and Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain. He has received several national playwriting awards and is currently playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company and the Community Theatre League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Ella Minnow Pea is his first novel.

Discussion Guides

1. In what ways is Ella Minnow Pea unconventional? How is it more like a fable than a novel? What characteristics does it share with other fables? Does it offer a clear moral?

2. Why has Mark Dunn chosen to tell this story through letters rather than a more straightforward narrative? What does Dunn gain by eschewing a single narrative voice in favor of many characters writing to one another about the events that beset their island-nation? What ironies are involved in writing letters about the disappearance of the letters of the alphabet?

3. In response to the first proclamation proscribing the use of the letter “Z,” Tassie warns, “it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness” [p. 10]. In what sense can Ella Minnow Pea be read as a satire of censorship and the restriction of free speech?

4. All the inhabitants of Nollop are forced into linguistic contortions to avoid being prosecuted by the High Council, substituting words like “cephalus” for “head” and “sub-terra” for “underground” [p. 99]. What are some of the other more amusing verbal acrobatics they are forced to perform?

5. Nate Warren suggests that Nollop was a “charlatan” and a “con man” and that the pangram–“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”–responsible for his divine status may have been stolen from someone else. What is Dunn suggesting here about the ways in which human societies venerate and mythologize sacred texts and heroic ancestors?

6. What strategies do the islanders use to protest, oppose, and finally overthrow the tyranny of the High Council? How do these strategies create suspense in the novel?

7. When council representatives come to confiscate Rory Cummel’s property, they tell him they are only doing the will of Nollop and that “There is no other Supreme Being but Nollop” [p. 121]. Seen in light of recent events, in the Middle East and elsewhere, can the novel be read as a commentary on religious authoritarianism? What does the novel suggest about the dangers of humans assuming they know God’s will with absolute certainty?

8. Ella Minnow Pea dwells heavily on the theme of communication–reading, writing, and talking. What is Dunn suggesting by having the members of the High Island Council read the falling letters as signs–supernatural communications from Nollop–which ultimately make communication nearly impossible? What does the novel as whole say about the nature and purpose of communication and community?

9. How important are the love relationships in the novel–for example those between Tassie and Nate and between Rory and Mittie–to the main action? How do they enhance the plot?

10. Tassie writes that she longs to “live across the channel. . . . With telephones that actually work, and television and computers and books–all the books one could ever hope to read” [p. 32]. What does the novel imply about the dangers of trying to create a utopian society? What examples of intolerant societies–religious or otherwise–exist in the world today? Is the message of this novel relevant to those situations?

11. What is the significance of Amos Minnow Pea writing, quite by accident, a sentence which surpasses Nollop’s illustrious pangram? In what way does this undermine the divine value that the high council attributes to Nollop’s sentence?

12. At the end of the novel, Ella suggests a memorial to those who suffered from the High Council’s tyranny: “a large box filled with sixty moonshine jugs–piled high, toppling over, corks popping, liquor flowing. Disorder to match the clutter and chaos of our marvelous language. Words upon words, piled high, toppling over, thoughts popping, correspondence and conversation overflowing” [p. 206]. Why is this an appropriate memorial? In what ways is language chaotic? In what ways is it ordered and restrictive? Why is Ella comparing liquor and conversation in this passage?

13. How does Dunn manage to make Ella Minnow Pea both a whimsical fable and a serious anti-authoritarian satire? What elements of the novel seem comical or lighthearted? What elements seem more pointed? How well does the author integrate them into the story?

Suggested Readings

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings; Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451; Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories; Franz Kafka, The Castle; George Orwell, Animal Farm; Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle.

Teacher's Guide


Hailed by the Christian Science Monitor as “the first political satire of the 21st century”—and by the Dallas Morning News as “Orwell meets Scrabble”—Ella Minnow Pea is an exuberant novel of language and ideas that should be of particular interest to high school and college students. As a political satire, it reflects the paranoid absurdities of both the political correctness movement and the domestic war on terror. But the book is also a dazzling linguistic performance that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the subtleties and suppleness of the English language. The 19th-century violinist Niccolo Paganini was famous for snipping three strings of his instrument in mid-concerto and playing on without missing a beat. In Ella Minnow Pea Mark Dunn goes Paganini 21 better, divesting himself of most of the letters of the English alphabet and doing so in perfect accordance with the dictates of his story.

The island republic of Nollop is situated 21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Nollop is blessed with beautiful beaches, stunning sunsets and an exceptionally literate citizenry that has followed the founder’s injunction to “push the perimeter of this glorious language.” [74] One can see just how literate from even a cursory perusal of the letters of Ella Minnow Pea, the 18-year-old laundress who is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with communiqués from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members sequester themselves to glean the purpose and design behind the “detachation.” Shortly they announce their decision: The fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter extirpated from the island’s speech and writing. The Council obliges with a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. And although at first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realizes that the ban has grotesquely far-ranging implications. These become increasingly evident as more tiles tumble and more letters are taken out of circulation. Soon communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and the best and brightest of Nollop’s citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold—by composing a pangram even pithier than Nollop’s.


“A curiously compelling . . . satire of human foibles, and a light-stepping commentary on censorship and totalitarianism.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Wordsmiths of every stripe will appreciate this whimsical fable, in which Dunn brilliantly demonstrates his ability to delight and captivate." —Publishers weekly

"Dunn... stirs a lot of farce and comic relief into the story....If you're up to the deciphering task, you'll go on a merry romp in this book." —Library Journal (starred)

On OuLiPo: An Introductory Note
Ella Minnow Pea is a lipogrammatic novel; that is, it is written to avoid using certain letters of the alphabet—ultimately, all of them save ‘l, m, n, o, p.’ As such, it is a late example of the school of literature known as ‘OuLiPo,’ an acronym for ‘Ouvroir de Littératture Potentielle’ or ‘Workshop for Potential Literature.’ Although OuLiPo originated in France, where it was co-founded in 1960 by the writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, it has come to include works by Italian (Italo Calvino), Argentinean (Julio Cortázar), and U.S. (Harry Mathews, Walter Abish) writers. Oulipian novels are composed under certain constraints of language, plot or structure. According to Professor Paul Harris of Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, such “constraints push writers into new linguistic territories—one might say that an Oulipian work is a sort of ongoing investigation into language itself.” Harris’s essay “The OuLiPo,” can be viewed at:


Actually, OuLiPo only brings to fiction principles of organization that have been present in poetry since the appearance of the sonnet and the villanelle. And as many poets have noted, placing voluntary restrictions on how one writes may paradoxically liberate what one writes. In the words of Queneau, “the Oulipian writer is always inspired” [Harris, ibid.]


Mark Dunn is the author of more than 25 full-length plays, including Belles, Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain and Armistice Day. He has been the recipient of several national awards, including the 1997 Nesburn Prize and the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild/July Harris Playwriting Award. He is currently playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company and the Community Theatre League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Originally from Memphis, he now lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Mary. Ella Minnow Pea is his first novel. [Info on file, in printout from Mostlyfiction.com]


Understanding the Story

1. What event precipitates the novel’s action? [3] What is the letter on the fallen tile? [5]

2. Why does the Council hold an emergency meeting and how does it explain the ‘detachation’ of the tile? [6] Does Ella agree with this explanation? [7] Do you?

3. What is Nevin Nollop’s legacy to the people of Nollop? [5, 10]

4. What is the Council’s first edict? [5-7]

5. How does Ella think the edict will change life on the island? [7] How do Tassie’s predictions differ from hers? [9-10] Which of them turns out to be right?

6. What are the edict’s incidental consequences? How does it (and its successors) affect the island’s libraries, schools, press and even its extra-literary activities? [17-19, 21-2, 27, 30, 76] What does this suggest about the importance of language?

7. Why can’t dissenting Nollopians simply launch a recall motion against the Council? [10, 29]

8. Do the Council’s edicts contain any loopholes or exemptions? [13] What are they and how are they later put to use by Ella and her allies? [102-3, 127]

9. What does Tassie mean when she writes, “In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade”? [18]

10. How does the Council go about enforcing its rulings? [21, 29, 119] In particular, how does it find out which of its subjects are using forbidden letters?

11. What does Ella mean when she says that the law “builds rock walls between hearts” [22]? What evidence do you see for this?

12. What headline appears on the final edition of the Nollop Tribune? [30] How do other dissenting Nollopians use language to defy the Council? [48-9]

13. How do Mr. and Mrs. Towgate justify informing on Mittie Purcy? [32, 39-43] What implicit accusation does Mr. Towgate level against Tassie? [40]

14. Who is Nathan Warren and how has he learned of Nollop’s predicament? [44-5] What vital and disturbing piece of news does he bring with him from the States? [50] What does he propose to do with this information? [51-3]

15. What are the “ten salients” of the Council’s proclamation to the people of Nollop? [55] How does it justify its actions? What does the story about Nollop and his stenographer suggest about the founder’s character? [56]

16. What transpires at the first meeting of the island’s dissidents? [68-9]

17. Why does Ella maintain that the loss of the letter ‘D’ robs islanders “of great chunks of our very history?” [69]

18. Following D’s departure, what alternate names does the Council give the days of the week? [70] At what point do these names, too, become inoperative, and what takes their place? [[115, 127, 130]

19. What were Nollop’s last words, and what is their relevance to the story? [74, 78-9]

20. What seemingly minor piece of information do we learn about Ella’s father? How will this become important later in the novel? [82, 119-20]

21. Describe the challenge that Nate issues to Mr. Lyttle. [94-6] What is it intended to prove? Why does the rest of the council agree to it? [99-100] What is the significance of the term “Enterprise 32”? [107]

22. What further edict does the Council issue against exiles? [100] Is this decree meant simply as punishment or does it serve an ulterior purpose?

23. What brings about Mittie’s second violation of a Council edict? [116] What particular regret does she express when reporting the incident to her daughter? [117]

24. Why is Rory Cummels expelled from Nollop? [121-2] How does his offense differ from those of the other characters' and what does it say about the metastasis of the Nollopian cult?

25. In a letter to Nate, Tassie writes, “We are our own cavalry. The only cavalry there is. Whose horses seem in permanent hobble status.”? [123] What does she mean by this?

26. Why is Tassie imprisoned and how is she freed? [127-8, 132, 147-8]

27. How does Georgeanne Towgate come to repent her earlier actions? [130, 139, 159]

28. What is so striking about Amos Pea’s parting letter to his family? [133-4, 195-7]

29. What happens to life on Nollop as the Council’s bans become increasingly restrictive? [149-51, 154] What does the Council do to restore order? [151]

30. Who is Tom and what is his role in Enterprise 32? [151-4]

31. What new concession does the Council make to facilitate written communication among Nollopians? [165]

32. How does Professor Mannheim die and who relates the “greephos” [169] news to Ella? What does this augur for the success of the Enterprise? [170-3]

33. Describe the demise of Georgeanne Towgate. [175-181] Do you think the manner of her death reflects her personality or it a response to the rigors of life in an alphabetically-deprived society?

34. Who is Ella’s last remaining ally in the Enterprise [181-2]? What keeps her from abandoning the project or following her loved ones into exile? [187]

35. How does Ella come to meet the challenge to the Council? [197] How does the author demonstrate the validity of her sentence? Why does she refuse to take full credit for it? [201]

36. What final revelation emerges about the once-revered Nollop? [204-205]

Language: Pangrams, Anagrams, and Portmanteau Words
1. Ella Minnow Pea features an expansive and often exotic vocabulary, plentifully augmented by neologisms and especially by portmanteau words, hybrids that combine the sounds and meanings of two different words. Which of the following words are ‘real’ and which are coinages? Define the real words and suggest definitions (and etymologies) for the invented ones: leapdash, multypewritudes, empyrean, extirpated, posteritified, lucubrating, biblio-shelves, promulgated, anser-herd, littoral, vocabulazy, pisciverous, anodized, ineffable, aposiopesis, caesura, scissoresonance, hurlatory, delishmerelle, heavipendence, pureplicity, taciteries, partete, Nollopimpotents, immotility, intensured, rectilitude, apostates, stagnationality, pyrrhic, Pentapriests, humongolacity, concomitate, fenesters, gripgrasping, illicitabetical, Screnity, grocerateria, conciliteurs, pharisaic nemisister, invisilibinguista, expurgatory-tangibull, tenebrous, learny-house, impregness, exanimate, genoerasure, espy-ation, unilearnity, gopher-mental, intoxi-tipsy

2. In addition to coining words, Mark Dunn invents a number of phrases intended to serve as euphemisms or to express an idea without the use of a banned letter. Define the following phrases and discuss their probable derivations:
dull-brass-and-pauper’s-punch, High and Almighties, spinal-defectives, town baa-baas, bastinado-beneficed, tuss-and-tangled, ask-me-now, pound-logical, Heavenly Omnigreatness, crepuscular-to-auroric

3. One of the advantages (and challenges) of an epistolary novel is that it reveals its characters through their voices. What do the voices of Dunn’s characters tell you about them? Compare Ella’s literary style to Tassie’s, or the younger girls’ voices to those of their elders. How do Georgeanne Towgate’s letters differ from Nate’s or Tom’s? Pay special attention to the collective voice of the High Council, as revealed in its edicts and manifestos. What methods does the author use to help us distinguish between speakers? What happens to their voices as the pool of linguistic resources dwindles?

4. The more letters are eliminated from the islanders’–and the novel’s–discourse, the greater the risk of incoherence. How does the book succeed in conveying the increasing poverty of Nollopian speech and writing without becoming unintelligible?

5. In addition to its lipograms and pangrams, does Ella Minnow Pea contain any other verbal patterns? Does the language of one chapter, for example, telegraph which letter will fall in the next? Is “Not, though, when L. E. goons motor through–their horns wailing. Hooligans.” [139] an anagram, or does it just look like one? Is the name “Nollop” a pun for “No l-o-p?” There is also the possibility that the very density of the novel’s linguistic surface is meant to tease readers into looking for codes where none exist. Is Mark Dunn playing a game with us? With this in mind, you may wish to look at such works of literature as George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Jorge Luis Borges’ stories, “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Compass.”


1. Discuss the significance of the novel’s two epigrams: In the beginning was the Word and The wicked peon quivered, then gazed balefully at the judges who examined him. In what different ways does each suggest the book’s subject? Is there something especially appropriate about the way the author pairs a verse from the Bible with a pangram composed by an anonymous typesetter–in other words, the sublime with the ridiculous?

2. The entire plot of Ella Minnow Pea hinges on a paradox: Nevin Nollop taught his people to revere language and extend its perimeters, yet in enforcing Nollop’s posthumous wishes (real or perceived) the Council subjects language to unpardonable indignities and shrinks its perimeters to strait-jacket proportions. Is this simply a result of the Council’s ruthlessness and fanaticism or does it arise from something in the very fabric of Nollop? Is Dunn trying to suggest that any belief or value system, when carried to a sufficient extreme, is likely to become self-negating?

3. What does Ella Minnow Pea suggest about dictatorships: their origins, aims and methods of accumulating and holding on to power? Is it fair to treat a book as fanciful as this one as a document of totalitarianism?

4. Almost everybody in Nollop seems to be unhappy with the council’s edicts, yet no one is able to effectively resist them. Why? What does this suggest about the ways that totalitarian regimes affect not only the outward lives but the hearts and minds of their subjects? Are Nollop’s inhabitants simply “spinal defectives,” [49] or does their passivity have a more complex motivation?

5. How is Nollop affected by the enforced impoverishment of its language? In particular what effects does this shrinkage have on the relationships and interior lives of Nollop’s citizens? Do these developments strike you as believable? What is this novel trying to say about the way language shapes our relationships with others and our sense of self?

6. Do the Council’s edicts have any positive consequences? Couldn’t one say, for instance, that they inspire the Nollopians to greater feats of linguistic dexterity and imaginativeness? What parallels do you see between the Council’s strictures on language and the strictures imposed by Oulipo? Can one read Ella Minnow Pea as a novel that comments on its own structure—the literary equivalent of the Quaker Oats boxes brandished by the Rasmussen family? [p. 48]

7. At the novel’s close Ella describes Nollop as a “low order primate elevated to high order ecclesiastical primate, elevated still further in these darkest last days to ultimate prime-A-grade superior being.” [201-202] (Note the way Dunn uses the word ‘primate’ in both its meanings: as an order of mammal and as an ecclesiastical office.) Is Ella Minnow Pea a religious fable? If so, what would its moral be?

8. Ella Minnow Pea’s strongest characters are women—not just Ella but her cousin Tassie and their respective mothers Gwenette and Mittie. The novel’s male characters tend to be villainous like the Council members, weak like Ella’s father Amos, or at best helpful adjuncts like Nate and Tom. What is the significance of this?

9. Discuss the novel’s use of irony, both the conscious, verbal variety (for example, Ella’s telling Georgeanne Towgate’s family that her painted body “shoot loog smashing 4 the phooneral” [183] ) and situational irony, arising from the discrepancy between words and reality or expectations and results. (An example of the latter is the Council reassuring Mrs. Pea that “Ours continues to be a free, open society” [78] even as it summons her to be flogged or cephalo-stocked). How does Dunn employ both types of irony?

10. Why do you think Dunn chose to make Ella Minnow Pea an epistolary novel? What advantages accrue from telling a story through the letters of its characters? How might this book be different if it had a single narrator and point of view?

11. The dwindling of Nollop’s alphabet coincides with the dwindling of its population. This is one example of the novel’s structure. What other structural devices does the author employ? You may note the recurring appearance of the ever-diminished “Quick-brown-fox” pangram or the way both Ella and Tassie are given romantic interests who are forced into exile or hiding. Why is structure particularly important in a novel like this one?

12. The best way to enjoy Ella Minnow Pea is to read it closely, paying attention to its themes, patterns and linguistic tropes. Discuss the novel’s value as a means of teaching the art of critical reading. How would you apply the methods you used to read Ella Minnow Pea to approach other texts?


1. Research a totalitarian regime of any historical era and compare its history to that of Nollop under the Council. You may wish to consider such phenomena as the religious or secular cult of personality; the gradual escalation of the assault on civil liberty; the politicization of culture and language; the use of informants; and the ways in which ordinary citizens come to internalize the repression of the regime.

2. Compare Ella Minnow Pea to other dystopian novels, such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration; Philip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner Darkly or Radio Free Albemuth; or Evgeny Zamyatin’s We. Which of these books seem the most believable? Why do you think the overwhelming majority are tragic rather than comic? Does the fact that Ella Minnow Pea is a comic novel makes it less serious?

3. Write a brief essay proving or disproving the following proposition: “The fall of tiles from the cenotaph is a clear expression of Nollop’s will and desire–namely that the letters on said tiles be eliminated from use.”

4. Compare Ella Minnow Pea to another novel that employs Oulipian techniques, e.g. Life: a User’s Manual or A Void by George Perec; If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino; Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; or The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews. On the basis of your reading, do you think these works are notable chiefly for their gamesmanship or do they achieve ends beyond the reach of more conventional fictions?

5. Write a short Oulipian text of your choice, employing any of the following constraints:
• Eschew one or more letters of the alphabet
• Use only one vowel (a, e, i, o, u or—for the truly ambitious—y)
• Make the first letter of each sentence (or line, if you’re writing a poem) part of an acronym.
• Write solely in the interrogative or imperative modes.


Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish; Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino; Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar; Through a Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick; Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy; The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews; 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell; Life: A User’s Manual and A Void by Georges Perec; Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; The Wonderful O by James Thurber; We by Evgeny Zamyatin.


The questions, exercises, and assignments in this teachers guide are intended to guide your students through Ella Minnow Pea and help them navigate the multiple levels of this playfully intricate novel. Given the scope of Dunn’s vocabulary (and his penchant for coining words and phrases at the drop of a hat) your class will probably want to keep a language journal—and some sort of scratch sheet to test the book’s pangrams and other verbal codes. Any discussion of Ella Minnow Pea will inevitably touch on the issues of censorship and repression and the difference between literal and deep meanings. Thus, the book is an invaluable introduction to the art of critical reading—as well as to such literary forms as the fable, the political satire, and the epistolary and lipogrammatic novel. It is also a great deal of fun to read. Whatever else this guide accomplishes, we hope it preserves that sense of fun.

This Teacher’s Guide was written by Peter Trachtenberg. Peter Trachtenberg is a published writer of fiction and personal essays. He has taught writing and literature at The New School and the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Education.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: