Today’s flashback opens up a new series I’ve decided to call “A Novel Exploration.” It will briefly and in a manner lighter than typical, casually chat about a work and reach out to literary connections (text to self, books or world). This is a technique used in teaching literacy, but can also be a fun way to more deliberately explore novels, their characters and the ideas we find within them, especially when talking about books with friends.
In a way, referring to this practice as “novel,” or out of the ordinary, is a misnomer because, really, we engage in it all the time without consciously acknowledging that we are. Once we begin to realize how much we actually do it, though, it is sort of novel because we’re now approaching it in a different way, with a new perception on the process–maybe because the discoveries we make can bring so much more pleasure to the reading, and indeed, living experience. One of my favorites is trying to make food items or copy recipes that have appeared in a story.
This particular piece was written several years ago for a university class, though it never really saw the light of day. Since that time many more Alexander McCall Smith books have been released–so many, in fact, I’ve lost track of what has come out and which ones I’ve read. But they are fun and flow smoothly, and those who populate McCall Smith’s works are easy to care about.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Original Blog Title: What You Need to Open a Detective Agency
Money, of course. But also: compassion; intuition; friends to help you get things like typewriters; a good supply of red bush tea; a place to set up shop; and a vehicle.
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Precious Ramotswe has inherited money from her late Daddy and with it purchased the building to set her agency, a corner plot on Zebra Drive and a tiny white van to get her around. Proudly being a lady of traditional build, Mma Ramotswe sometimes worries about the stress on it; nevertheless the loyal automobile carries her across the pages and through readers’ minds as she makes her way round Gaborone, up and down the Molepolole Road, to Francistown and to and fro each day at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on Kgale Hill on the edge of the largest city in Botswana.
Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is somewhat misleading in that it reads with ease, but is filled with the details of a complex society rich with the nuances and understanding of a bustling economy grown from towns named after tribal chiefs, a cast of characters as varied as in any large and historical city, and mysteries that bubble under the surface. Mma Ramotswe is hired to “track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is that of a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors” (from back cover).
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Mma Ramotswe captured my heart because she is honest and caring, though not easily duped; she sees through so many situations, but remains patient enough to reserve assessment; and she values the traditions and ways of her culture while placing value in the future. Throughout The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency readers develop a greater understanding and awareness of Botswana culture, societal habits (even including such elements as particular gesticulations), history and its major players, and even its Achilles heel, the AIDS epidemic, discussed in tactfully delicate tones so as to offset the idea of a one-paradigm Africa while simultaneously maintaining respect for the realities in the lives of the many people affected by the disease. What brings all this together for me is the sheer ordinariness of it all: I have always been someone intrigued and interested in different cultures, but above all I want to know what the “regular” people do. What kind of toothpaste do they use? What are their shopping habits? What insights could I get from glimpses into decorating styles of their homes, inside and out? Smith satisfies these curiosities of mine, not merely for the sake of traveler voyeurism, but to help one gain a greater understanding and appreciation of people who are different–and yet the same–to many or most of us.
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I was delighted to discover, after I first read the book in 2001, that there was a sequel and still later I found a whole series waiting for me. Even now the author seems to have plans for more adventures of Mma Ramotswe, and I’ve read most books in his other series, as well as his stand-alone works. McCall Smith, a Scot who grew up in Africa, is a rather prolific writer, with titles ranging from the ones I’ve mentioned here, to others such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana.
I’ve been intrigued enough to do a little research on my own regarding the country known as “the success story of Africa,” and have come across a wealth of information that exemplifies the way children expand their world when they read: from one paragraph they may learn two new words, from a chapter of a new world, and from the entire book a whole new set of questions. I’m so happy to write here that it remains an exciting prospect for me as well, when I read books and they open up doors to knowledge I never knew existed. What is it they say? What you never knew you never knew.
A few links that may be of interest to you regard:
Unity Dow, a Botswana attorney who succeeded in her litigation to render the citizenship laws of her country more equitable–previously a married woman could not pass her citizenship to her children. (The briefs linked here are rather long, but the language is straightforward and accessable.)
Botswana Gazette, a national newspaper. There also are foreign newspapers published in Botswana–magazine, press and Internet.
Alexander McCall Smith also maintains a web site, dedicated to his works and projects, here, with a lot of factual as well as fun information. I’ve wandered through it a few times and thought or wondered several things such as, I love to say the word Molepolole or Is Tlokweng, as in Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, pronounced Klokweng, with the same start sound as our Tlingit? I’ve also tried a variety of African bush tea (it’s delicious; I take it sans honey) and briefly written with a person from Gaborone, the capital.
Now I am about to read this first in the series again, and it will probably be an entirely new exploration.
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Note: This post was updated to correct the author’s surname, which is McCall Smith, and not Smith. My apologies to Mr. McCall Smith.