Friday, October 3, 2008

Reading To Learn to Love

I have learned to love Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana series, featuring Mma Ramotswe. It took me a while to relax into the first one, entitled The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. At first I found the main character slow in her thinking, and the plot rather thin. But I was not appreciating the simplicity of the plot and the dignity of the character, which grew on me until by the end, I was enjoying it on its own terms.

Over the last few years, I have enjoyed Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Full Cupboard of Life, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Blue Shoes and Happiness, and The Good Husband of Zebra Drive in much the same way, as an occasional oasis in a desert of disagreeable characters and complicated plots. Once I tried one of the Isabel Dalhousie books by the same author, but I found it vaguely pretentious and mightily boring.

So when I found the newest Botswana novel, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, at the library, I wasn't expecting much more than an hour or two reading about life at a slower pace. I did get that (in fact, I saved the book for before-bedtime reading), but I was surprised to find that I like this book as much as I grew to like the first one. It is the crowning glory of the series, so far, and my only qualm about recommending it is that you really need to have read the previous novels in order to enjoy the many charms of this one fully.

When I began reading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I was the mother of a ten-year-old and an seven-year-old. Now I'm mothering a fifteen-year-old and a twelve-year-old; the interval has done nothing but increase my patience, and my understanding of passages like this one:
'There were many dangers in this world, and the longer one journeyed through life the more one understood how varied these dangers were. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was why one worried more and more about others: one could imagine the manifold disasters that might befall them."

Also, merely by taking me out of my own country, reading this novel enlarges my perspective, until I'm thinking like the main character, who
"put out of her mind the things that had been worrying her. For out here, out in the acacia scrub that stretched away to those tiny island-like hills on the horizon, the concerns of the working world seemed of little weight. Yes, one had to earn a living; yes, one had to work with people who might have their little ways; yes, the world was not always as one might want it to be: but all of that seemed so small and unimportant under this sky."

Like it took me a while to relax into the pace of the first Botswana novel, it took me a long while to learn how to live with the pace of a small town. People would wave at me, driving around town, and I never waved back because I didn't look into the cars to see who was inside. Now I do. I've learned the charms of going to the drive-up pharmacy and having the clerk hand me a refill for my son that's already charged to my account, all without having to ask my name. I moved away from the town where I grew up and was glad of it, because I could make my own way without being known merely for family connections, but now I can see the comfort Precious Ramotswe takes when people speak to her of her dead ("late") father: "that people should still speak of him; that touched her. One did not have to be famous to be remembered in Botswana; there was room in history for all of us." And even on the second day of the John Freshwater inquiry downtown at the County Service Building, where I went this morning to attach a photo to one of our passport applications, I find it mostly reassuring to live in a town so small that people who are on opposite sides of an issue still have to find ways to get along. It's like Mma Ramotswe's conversation with a bank guard: "Here in Botswana if anybody came to rob the bank you'd probably know exactly who they were. You could simply threaten to tell their mothers. That would put a stop to any bank robbery."

In the end, I think I'm not alone in longing to be more like Mma Ramotswe, a woman who can understand and forgive almost anything. Her assistant, a mere mortal like you or me, realizes from watching her that "evil repaid with kindness was shown to be what it really was, a small, petty thing, not something frightening at all, but something pitiable, a paltry affair." And it's a relief to see through Mma Ramotswe's eyes, because she sees hope for everyone. But she's not a simple-minded moralist. You can laugh with her about why her assistant's father-in-law is demanding the seemingly outrageous dowry of ninety-seven cows!

1 comment:

paj said...

I love how you have articulated my thoughts about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which I read a few years ago and liked but hadn't really considered why. Having grown up in a small-town atmosphere and being known as "the second Dunn girl" or more often "Cynthia's youngest," I know the comforts of that life but also the challenges. (Note that I moved away 30 years ago and haven't returned, except for short visits.) The quiet lub-lub of small town/rural life is so different from the constant hum of the busy urban scene. Thanks for recommending the latest in this series. I'll have to track down the others and read them first.
I laughed aloud at the comment about bank robbers being scared away by the threat of telling their mothers. In our small town, a young local man walked into the tiny branch of the bank and demanded money, which the tellers handed over. He sped away. The tellers called the police, told them the name of the thief, the kind of car his was driving (and probably who his parents were). The robber was quickly apprehended, tried, convicted and served prison time. Upon his release, he returned to the bank and announced, "You know who I am, and you know why I'm here," whereupon he robbed the bank again, with the same results.