- - Thursday, November 17, 2016



By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $25.95, 240 pages

Very few authors can write about forgiveness and do it with grace. Alexander McCall Smith is one of them. He writes with a philosophy infused with gentleness, whether it is about an orphaned dog or a woman who is brought to realize that there is still happiness in bitter memories.

This latest in his series of books about the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana is poignant and touching. His Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” woman who runs the tiny organization, may be the only detective alive who takes on a client who wants to relive as well as retrieve her nostalgia for her Botswanan childhood. She wants to find Rosie, whom she vividly remembers from her childhood days, and Mma Ramotswe does what to her is the obvious solution. She puts an advertisement in the local paper. And in between she finds an appropriate home for Zebra, a homeless stray dog who takes two abandoned children under the shelter of his paw. In what spare time she has, Mma Ramotswe gives good financial advice to Mr. Polopetsi who is making some bad decisions about his Fat Cattle Club that could well land him in jail.

Mma Ramotswe seeks the counsel of her old friend, the local police superintendent who suggests that he should consider hiring her as the lady in charge of difficult decisions. Instead he comes up with a little job for Mr. Polopetsi that will remove him from the dangers of potential drug dealing in Zambia. And as backup of course there’s Mma Makutsi, the only mother in Botswana with a purring baby, who advises Mma Ramotswe when she is not conferring with her shoes. Mma Makutski’s proudest moment came when she won 97 per cent at the local secretarial school and she is a lady who sees the world rather sternly through her enormous eyeglasses. She is not as charitable as Mma Ramotswe, but she is softening under the influence of her boss and Mma Ramotswe’s lovable husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs the local garage and is as kindhearted as his wife.

The book is a characteristic series of vignettes of what is a familiar world to Mr. McCall Smith. The characters are more than familiar. Even when Mma Ramotswe fears she has been bitten by a viper in a neighbor’s yard, she gives the impression that she was treading on the snake’s territory and of course it turns out to be no more than a scratch which she brushes off as partly her fault. When she has to remonstrate against the pent up anger of Susan who is haunted by a childhood incident, Mma Ramotswe tells herself, “The way to defuse anger is to allow it an outlet. Anger was like a volcano. You had to wait until it discharged before you could approach its crater.”

And she advises her bitter client, “Forgive her.” When the client responds with exasperation, Mma Ramotswe assures her, “Forgiveness is the only way you can settle these things. Forgiveness is the only way you will be able to forget.” The angry client strikes at her and almost knocks her down. In the apologetic silence that follows, the two women agree that words are the way to settle anger and they move away, arm in arm. Mma Ramotswe reflects later how for “anger and its close cousin, revenge came off second best to forgiveness.”

She decides that unhappiness is not always helped by delving into the past but by other more productive means. “People often make that discovery themselves,” she concludes happily.” All they need is a bit of a push.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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