The Wonderful O by James Thurber


Pirates Black and Littlejack have sailed their ship, the Aieu1, to the island of Ooroo in search of treasure. The catch? (and the source of the book’s title?): Littlejack has declared a vendetta against the letter O, as his mother became stuck in a porthole years before. They could not pull her in, so they had to push her out.

While they search, Black, Littlejack and their nefarious crew insist that the island residents no longer use the letter O, either spoken aloud or on paper, a move which affects the population across the board. Group names are partially exempt, but the quest is on for O-less synonyms for all the flowers and orchestral pieces, professions, jobs, and personal names rendered laughable, unpronounceable and flat-out offensive by Littlejack’s vowel phobia. Violin, oboe, viola and bassoon are gone from the orchestra; forget-me-not, rose, violet and hollyhock removed from the countryside; Otto Ott and Ophelia Oliver stutter and flee society. Pigs and sheep are acceptable, but not pork or mutton, bacon or chop; hens and geese are allowed but not poultry or goose, rooster or flock. And so on.

The villagers, led by the lovers Andrea and Andreus, conspire in the forest in the dark of night on how to restore all the necessary things which require O to exist, not least four concepts which make life worth living: hope, love, valor and the fourth one, unnamed until the end of the book. The Wonderful O does have a happy ending, with the pirates driven away by all the things with O, and the islanders free to use all the vowels as needed.

I’d guess that Thurber loved words and language and how they sound; both this and The Thirteen Clocks cry out to be read aloud. On the page both books sound merely stilted and awkward, but spoken, the poetry in the prose becomes more obvious. The plot’s a trifle awkward, but I think the book’s worth reading as a thought (and vocal) experiment with how removing a letter would alter one’s speech and writing. Who could know how often people use that one letter? The vocabulary is necessarily at a level to render the book difficult for a younger child who is still in the ‘developing sight vocabulary and sound decoding’ reading phase, though this isn’t the problem it might be, as the book is more enjoyable read aloud even for those of us who know what a glockenspiel is.

In fairness, the book’s central plot device is going to annoy as many readers as it intrigues. The point of the book is wordplay rather than character development and motivation or plausible plot structure; if that’s what you prefer, Thurber’s work isn’t for you. However, if the Oulipo school of writing is intriguing, give this a try.

Think you could manage without O? Try reading this entry without it. I didn’t go out of my way to use O words2, but it disintegrates without the letter.

New York Times, discussing the rerelease
Vulpes Library (on WordPress)
Wondrous Pilgrim
Gathering Books

1all the vowels except O
2well, not often

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