Imagine Plato’s Republic as founded by the child of Diderot and Charles Dickens, without the fascism but with plenty of rules: That’s Dingley Dell, a place where life is “perpetually shrouded in impenetrable mystery.”
Dunn plows fruitful land in this follow-up to his altogether more lighthearted but no less inventive Ella Minnow Pea (2001), positing a bookish place where cultural life is governed by old encyclopedias, Victorian novels and guild labor to do William Morris proud. No one knows where the Dell of Dingley, or Dingley Dell—fans of The Pickwick Papers, or of more obscure Monty Python bits, will remember the name—really lies: Some say Campania, others East Asia, though the coal seams and “conspicuous absence of the European Jay” suggest the Appalachians. Dingley Dell isn’t exactly paradise, but it’ll do, and its inhabitants are content to live in its shelter, speaking a language that is a little hobbity around the edges and remaining only dimly aware, via the “suppositive postulations,” that a larger world exists out there but is not to be welcomed in or sought out. It’s not exactly M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, but the fact remains that Dingley Dell exists for an odd reason, and that certain Outlanders harbor ill designs on it. When those designs are revealed, it’s up to the Dinglians to go to war for their own survival, having learned about guerrilla warfare from who knows where. Set logic aside; Dunn crafts a pleasing, smart entertainment that slyly comments on and draws from a whole swath of fantasy and dystopian standards, from Fahrenheit 451 to the assembled works of Tolkien. In writing of his lost tribe, his “little people from an orographically anomalous valley,” he invents a believable world, one that, wicked beings that we Outlanders are, would not seem likely to last.
Does it last? Readers are left guessing to the very end. This is a lively, thoughtful and beautifully written flight of fancy.