Duck Duck Book

23 – no. 1 ladies’
08.16.2005, 12:05 am
Filed under: fiction

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency / Alexander McCall Smith.
Edinburgh : Polygon, c1998.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY MCCALL; 38 copies, 14 holds;
also CASSETTE Mystery MCCALLSMI; nine copies, two holds;
CD Mystery MCCALLSMI; four copies, 17 holds;
and LGE-TYPE MYSTERY MCCALL; three copies, four holds]

Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s leading private detective, which explains the name of this book and her agency. If you like the friendlier sort of mystery novel, and you appreciate a folksy kind of vernacular and a storyline filled with people who have rich and supportive but not entirely three-dimensional relationships, you’re likely to enjoy this series of books. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is followed by five (so far) other novels about Mma Ramotswe, her friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, mechanic and proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, her assistant Grace Makutsi, and other interesting characters.

Mma Ramotswe is resourceful, honest, patient, and very very smart. She makes her own way in the world even as she draws deeply on the support of her dear friends and community — Mma Ramotswe is a person who shows that her successes come from her own initiative, fortitude, and hard work without diminishing that she could never be what she is without the love and attentions of other people. This is nice to see in a fictional character. In addition, the human mysteries around which the stories revolve are compelling and rich — not too violent or upsetting, but just disturbing and interesting enough to allow readers to consider serious matters while engaged in the recreation of reading. Mma Ramotswe is a philosopher of life, and her intonations about how things are, how they should be, and what they mean are often calming and subtly inspiring.

But, as much as I’ve enjoyed the books in this series, they do remind me of a feature of the world of literature that saddens me greatly — white people, people from the “western” nations, and representatives of the middle and upper classes are the ones who tell almost all the stories, even when the subjects of those stories are decidedly not white, not “western,” or not middle/upper class. (It used to be also that stories about women were told almost exclusively by men, though this is changing some with time.) It is common for readers to be interested in literature about people who live lives quite unlike their own and situations that seem exotic or glamorous or are very far away in time or geography. This is right and natural — reading is an amazing, complex activity that can simultaneously soothe one’s curiosity and excite one’s intellect, and providing a window on a new world is one of the things that literature and the act of reading do best. But the available literature changes how these needs are actually met.

What I really want is to be able to hear a chorus of voices about those people, places, and situations that are far from my own experience. I would love to know what the Batswana people themselves have to say about their culture, the place they live, and their society. I am sure they have spoken in their own voices, but how do I find that work, here in Oregon? The library catalog at Multnomah County Library, for example, contains the work of three authors who write fiction set in Botswana: McCall Smith, a former Peace Corps coordinator named Norman Rush, and South African exile Bessie Head. Of these three, Head is the only African, and have you even heard of either Rush or Head, or of their books? I hadn’t until I looked in the catalog.

McCall Smith spent much of his life in Botswana, but he is nonetheless a foreigner and a white man. His books are beautiful and (I think) respectful of the place and culture they describe, and I do not mean to discount the value of an outside observer’s voice. But though I very heartily recommend the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I do wish that McCall Smith’s success and acclaim didn’t effectively overshadow other voices about Botswana and the Batswana people — and I wish that the voices of the Batswana themselves were more accessible to readers in the United States.


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