A post-apocalyptic book club selection (which is technically not post-apocalyptic, but we are flexible like that).
‘Ella Minnow Pea’ posits an independent island nation somewhere off the coast of North Carolina. The villagers there have opted for a simple life, embracing old-fashioned, small-town values. They’re governed by a town council, and revere the (fictional) historical character of Nevin Nollop, supposedly the originator of the pangrammatic phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” A monument to him stands in a prominent place on this island which is named after him, featuring the remarkable phrase that made his reputation immortal.
The problems start when – ker-smash! – one of the letters falls off the monument. The town council decides that this is a message from beyond: Nollop is communicating to his followers that the letter in question should no longer be used, either in speaking or writing. Violators will be punished… and the penalty will be more severe for subsequent offenses. The ordinance is difficult to follow, but the citizens manage. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning – the glue holding the letters to the monument is aging, and soon, more letters are on their way earthward – and out of the vocabulary of the characters and the book.
It’s a fun conceit, cleverly executed – although I have to say, the order in which the letters plummet and are eliminated is awfully convenient for the writer. I very much enjoyed the deadpan humor of the story, and the allegory concerning the methods that can be used for the gradual erosion of people’s rights is smooth – and spot-on.
I have to say, though – I expected things to get a lot worse. Society on Nollop slides into a dangerous place, where neighbors are accepting corporal punishment, turning informant, becoming banished, acceding to asset forfeiture, forming underground resistance groups and committing acts of civil disobedience… and I did expect a huge disaster at the end. But, maintaining the light-hearted tone of the book, the author kind of skids to a halt before hitting the edge of the precipice, and turns it around. I understand why, but the result felt a bit anti-climactic.