I seldom post reviews of books that I am reading – not because I do not think they are worthy of a post – but mostly because I am always reading and enjoy so many different genres by so many different authors that if I let myself do so, I would be posting about them all the time, rather than about other things. However, occasionally, I find myself enjoying a book so very much that I am just compelled to share it – or to share a series that is special to me.
I have posted a time or two about the Miss Read books – authored by the late Dora Saint – and I talked about how those books take the reader right into villages, the homes, and the lives of the charming and endearing characters. I became a bona-fide citizen of the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre through living in the books of the two series by those names.
More recently – and currently – I find myself in Botswana – deeply and cheerfully involved in the lives of one Precious Ramotswe and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, as well as all the other colorful people who populate their lives. I met Precious and Mr. J. L. B in Alexander McCall Smith’s book, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. That particular book eventually became a series of 15 books (as of the date of my post). The original book has been made into a movie, and the BBC eventually picked up at least some of the series for TV production.
The series shares the life of Mma Precious Ramotswe, who, after losing her father and inheriting all of his cattle, sells the cattle to get money enough to open a private detective agency. Precious has always been gifted with the ability to figure out mysteries and to find people and things, and after acquiring some education in the subject and earning a certificate, she sets out to open her business. From that point on, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency provides the backdrop for all the colorful, lovable, entertaining people and events that carry the reader from one book to another.
I will have to admit that when I first picked up book #1 and started reading, the African names and idiomatic expressions seemed to make reading difficult. As interesting as the story sounded, I thought perhaps it would just not be worth trying to figure out all the correct pronunciations enough to make the reading flow smoothly. However, I discovered the movie online and watched it. That experience brought the language to life for me – and allowed me to grasp the unique beauty in the lyrical, almost musical, rhythm of it. (There are audio versions of the books that will do that as well.) Once I had heard the language spoken, I found it totally delightful. From that point on, I was able to pick up the books again and read with no difficulty.
I think it might be of interest to future readers of the series to note that the books have become so popular around the world that there are sites online devoted to explaining the pronunciation of the names and words used, as well as some of the social protocol that influences the way people speak to and interact with one another.
One of the most obvious and affecting things that I noticed concerning the characters, who are very real and true to life – according to all the research I have done – is that the people of Botswana think of each other and speak to each other with enormous respect. Showing respect seems to affect every part of how they speak and interact with each other and with strangers, and I can’t help but compare that to the way so many of the people of the United States speak to and treat each other. We could learn some lessons.
But, overall, the beauty of the series is that the characters do live their lives in a very realistic way – loving, caring, sharing joys and sorrows – and although the stories revolve around some degree of mystery and investigation (it is about a ladies’ detective agency after all), the whole thrust of the books is positive and life-affirming on every level. The basic, everyday wisdom that Precious and her family and friends share in thought and in dialogue help the reader see life situations at ground level – in a way that strips away all the pretense and prejudice and just lets honesty shine through. Readers often find themselves thinking: “That’s just exactly how I feel about that situation, and she has put it into perfect words.” And readers feel a sense of hope and well-being as they move through these stories and when they close each book at the end of its final chapter.
I can’t help but compare the series – as I have the Miss Read series – to the long-running American television series The Andy Griffith Show. That show has broken all kinds of records as a result of running successfully for so many years – first in its original sit-com schedule and then through decades of re-runs right up to the present day. It’s still one of the best-loved TV series that ever existed, and it’s because it tells the story of a hometown full of real-life, imperfect, but lovable people who spend their lives sharing the good and the bad with their family and friends, always focusing each other on what is wholesome and valuable in life.
Yes, I know there are thousands of readers out there who “say” they want what they call “realism,” but who mean they want to read books and see movies that focus on the ugly, the destructive, the deadly, the evil in this life. But during my 66 years on this earth, I’ve experienced just about all the good and bad that this life has to offer – both in people and in situations – and I can tell you that the vast majority of people who pick up a book or sit down to a movie – if they are honest – are hoping to find a little bit of a reminder that there really is something a little better than the bad they’ve experienced so far. They’re hoping that they will get a glimpse of a possible level of life that is just a little higher, a little finer, a little happier than what they see in the norm. They want to see heroes – men and women who have that special “something” that makes them just a little bit more noble, more loving, and more victorious than the mediocre that surrounds the average person 24/7.
I’ve always been aware that, as a writer, I have a choice to make: I can take people down to the lowest levels of life, where there dwells no happiness and no hope. Or I can take them up – by getting them to look up – to the highest levels of life and the possibilities of making the world a better place through how we live and love. That’s why I choose to write about heroes and heroines who are just a tiny bit larger than life because they are focused on what is good and true and lovely – and, yes – available – if we will but make up our minds to have it. I see that component coming through strongly in the books that I have read (so far) in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. That’s why I can’t seem to stop reading until I get to the last book – and I’m hoping that by then, Mr. Alexander McCall Smith will have written more.
In book # 9 of the series, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Precious Ramotswe tells her adopted son, “We are all the same. All the same people. Bushmen, San, whatever you want to call them, and us, Batswana. White people too. Everybody. Inside us, we are exactly the same.” (Alexander McCall Smith, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Pantheon Books, p. 35). That’s one of the main assurances the reader takes from this series. Inside us, we are all the same. That’s why it’s so easy to fall in love with the people of Botswana. Whether the reader even knows enough geography to point to the country on the map or not, he feels a kinship with its people – and thereby with all the peoples of the world – as he lives in these books.