70 pages 2 hours read

Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


The entire story unravels on the island of Nollop, off the coast of North Carolina. Nollop is named after Nevin Nollop, a man who wrote a sentence containing all 26 letters of the alphabet: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Because of his feat, Nollop’s statue is erected in town as a monument to the island’s namesake. Ella Minnow Pea, the main character, writes to her cousin, Tassie, announcing the first of several terrible events on the island: a letter has fallen from the statue.

At first, what seems a simple fallen tile becomes a huge problem for the island. The Councilmen of the island deem the fallen tile a sign from Nollop himself, a sign that the letter shouldn’t be used by the inhabitants any longer. Ella welcomes the challenge, but Tassie warns of the possible implications, including the loss of precious books. Sure enough, the books are taken away for fear of containing a single, illegal letter.

Within days of the first ban, several people commit their first offences. The offender’s neighbors, Ella notes, told the authorities. People begin to turn on each other. The first person to reach his third and final offence is a young boy. He is banished from the island. Another letter falls and Ella wonders if the madness will end.

It does not. The Council bans the letter, and the local newspaper closes its doors out of fear of causing further offence. Tassie’s mother commits her first offence and is ratted out by a boy’s family. As a teacher, her mother wonders if she can continue teaching because she speaks so much. Her mother, Mittie, does not understand why a child’s parents would report her.

Tassie writes to the family, who promptly tell her they respect Nollop’s wish and, regardless of who commits the offence, offenders must be reported to the authorities. A man from the mainland writes to Mittie, asking if he can visit the island. He met the banished boy and wants to document the goings on of the island. She agrees he should come under the guise of an old family friend.

After an entire family is publically flogged for their second offence, Ella reports another fallen letter. The Council announces anyone thinking the fallen letters are anything but a sign from Nollop will be charged with heresy. A movement begins to grow among the citizens, quietly. Mittie finds out about one such group from a man named Rory.

Nate Warren, the man from the mainland arrives, and Tassie is smitten with him. More letters fall, including “O,” which has several representatives in Nollop’s sentence. Ella believes the Council cannot take it away. They don’t. Instead, they insist the letter be limited. Nate reveals a test was done on one of the fallen letters. The glue holding the letter is so old; it is the reason for the fall, not something supernatural. He tries to convince a Councilmember, Mr. Lyttle. Instead, they come to an agreement: Nate and the other inhabitants need to come up with a sentence with all letters of the alphabet, but the sentence must be shorter than Nollop’s. They agree on 32 total letters.

More letters fall, but everyone works away at creating the perfect, 32-letter sentence. Unfortunately, Nate is taken away by the L.E.B., the police, once it is discovered that he is from the mainland. However, the challenge continues. The town gets stuck on a sentence of 47 letters, written by a man at the university.

The Council begins to seize property. They decide a place of worship needs to be built in Nollop’s honor. Tassie is devastated by Nate’s expulsion and secretly writes threats to the Council. They find out and take her away to decide her fate. Her family worries, and Ella and Mittie visit her in prison daily. Soon, Ella’s parents are banished from the island for their final offence. Nate stows away on a ship and rescues Tassie. They run away with Mittie.

Ella is alone. She works with a couple people on the island, trying to create the 32-letter sentence. Unfortunately, her allies slowly disappear. Some are killed, some hide, and others run from the island. Stubborn, Ella vows to learn sign language and how to write with numbers. The final letters on the statue: LMNOP happen to sound like Ella’s name and contain the letters of Nollop’s name.

She finds their saving sentence in a letter from her father to the family. The sentence contains each of the 26 letters of the alphabet and totals 32 letters in all: “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.” The bans are lifted, and inhabitants return to the island.