Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith (Wheeler Publishing, 2016)
Afrika, Afrika, Afrika
Each of Alexander McCall Smith's seventeen books in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series ends with this wistful poem, prayerlike, in its simplicity. Smith grew up in Zimbabwe and later served as a professor of law at the University of Botswana, giving him a clear eye as to the magnificence and simplicity of African culture, which he communicates through his two primary characters, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Precious Ramotswe, a lady perpetually described as being “traditionally built,” and her partner, co-director of the agency, Grace Makutsi. But make no mistake; the beautiful country and humanistic culture of Botswana that are depicted make Botswana as much a character in the novel as are Precious and Grace.
In this new addition to the series, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are back to solve another mystifying case; a Canadian woman named Susan has returned to Botswana to find her former nanny, a woman named Rosie. Susan had left Africa when only a child and cannot remember the address of the home in which she lived or too many other details of her neighborhood. She does present the two detectives with a fuzzy photo of a woman, whose face is indistinguishable, but the shape of her head is somewhat clear. As Susan imparts another painful piece of her personal life, she realizes that she may have perplexed the two detectives in her telling of her story.
“I'm sorry, Mma, I've confused matters. You see all I meant was that my . . . well, I call it my Africa sickness, was very strong, and lasted even when something very important took over my life,” (p. 67) Susan tells the detectives. And, with this explanation of what her client has returned to Botswana to find, Mma Ramotswe begins to understand the depth of what is motivating the young Canadian woman, and accepts the challenge of the case. The two detectives also relate to Susan's description of her “African sickness,” in connecting her sense of loss in having to leave Botswana, a country of which they are fiercely proud. Obviously, Susan's longing and attachment to Botswana are still great if she is so motivated to return to find her nanny as well as some former school chums.
By accepting Susan's case, with so little information on which to explore, Mma Ramotswe must seek the wisdom of her mentor, Clovis Anderson, whose book The Principles of Private Detection, is the beacon by which Mma solves each of her cases. Throughout the novel, Ramotswe recalls passages of Anderson's book that lead her to the answer for which her client seeks. Although simple and obvious, Anderson's guiding principles never fail Mma Ramotswe.
The themes which drive the story in this series depict a culture of respect for both humans, plants, and even animals, such as a stray dog, who becomes a huge part of this novel. However, Botswana, like so many third world areas is changing and rapidly joining the modern world. Early in the novel, as Mma Ramotswe is driving to work, “She thought of how month by month, year by year, the traffic had got worse, as traffic always seemed to do. Was there nowhere on this earth where traffic got better; where the lines of cars thinned; where one could park virtually anywhere, as one could in the old days?” (p. 8) Mma Ramotswe longs for the simplicity that her beloved Botswana is forfeiting by the day.
However, many of the familiar cast of characters understand the importance of civility and exercise it by remaining true to the principles taught by their parents. For example, when a visitor comes to one's home, a glass of water is offered to make him/her feel welcome. Respect for another person leads to understanding and kindness as is seen in another case in which Mma Ramotswe becomes involved in Precious and Grace.
One of her assistants in the agency, a sweet and kind man who is a part time chemistry teacher, Rra Polopetsi, has been inadvertently dragged into a pyramid scheme, which has evolved into something possibly even darker. While Mma Ramotswe can see that her friend is about to become involved with a gang of drug lords, Rra Polopetsi, a small man who continually seems to shrink inside his clothes, needs to be told the truth and then figure out how to avoid going to jail himself. It is how Mma Ramotswe gently guides Rra Polopetsi through his problem that underscores the importance of being respectful of another person's feelings, no matter how gullible or stupid he may seem.
Treating all people with dignity and respect, even those who intend us harm, is a cornerstone of all of the No.Ladies' Detective Agency stories. For example, when Mma Makutsi's mortal enemy, Violet Sephotho, is named as the Gaborone Woman of the Year, Grace refuses to accept that this evil and self-serving woman could win such an honor. When she expresses her outrage to Mma Ramotswe, Precious finds the side to the situation that brings Mma Makutsi out of her funk.
Mma Makutsi mutters angrily, “I wouldn't be surprised if she gets Woman of the Year painted on the side of her car.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I hope she does that Mma. Imagine how we'll all laugh when we see that car go by.” (p.367)
By using a sense of humor and turning the situation around to show her friend that most people from Gaborone know the true mettle of Violet's character, Mma Ramotswe is able to make her dear associate smile and forget her anger.
Alexander McCall Smith never fails to make the reader smile; with every cup of tea served, with every reminder by Mma Matusi that she received 97% at the Botswana Secretarial School, with every time that Mma Ramotswe stuffs herself into her beloved, little white van, and with every slice of Mma Potokwane's delicious fruit cake, we are reminded that the simple life, the respectful life, is the most beautiful life. Smith depicts an Africa that makes us want to grab our passport and take the next jet to enjoy the glories and simplicity of Botswana.