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How to Raise an Elephant: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (21)

Review

How to Raise an Elephant: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (21)

Picking up any Alexander McCall Smith novel during these troubling times offers a respite from the surrounding chaos. His philosophical perspective on how we mere humans interact with one another is at once amusing, informative and insightful without being preachy. Of his many worldwide distributed titles, translated into more than 40 languages, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is my favorite. You can kick back in your reading chair with music playing in the background and tune out the world. There’s a familiarity of what comes next, yet you relish each note even when you’ve heard it before.

We all know Precious Ramotswe, founder of the famed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana’s one and only detective agency. She is the infinitely wise African woman of traditional build who drives a tiny white van, no matter what mishaps they encounter on their journey. And it is a well-known fact that Grace Makutsi, who achieved a 97% score in business school and whose shoes sometimes whisper words of wisdom, is the agency’s former secretary and now associate detective. The two ladies take breaks to sip their red bush tea as they resolve the issues --- some mundane, some peculiar but rarely dangerous --- with grace and fair-mindedness. It is so and shall ever be.

"We are blessed with philosophers like Alexander McCall Smith who gently and longingly look back at our own past good fortunes."

What we never know is just what dilemmas, often adventurous, will come through the door of their office behind the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, owned by Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni.

Speedy Motors' young and impulsive mechanic, Charlie, who has been promoted to being a part-time investigator for the agency, asks to borrow Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van to run an errand for a friend. Charlie has a good but often foolish heart, so it’s no surprise that, when the vehicle is returned the next day, it has a bent tailgate and reeks of a peculiar odor. It turns out he transported a baby elephant that his friend saw standing beside its dead mother, killed by ivory poachers and stripped of tusks --- a cruel but common crime in Africa. 

Charlie now has the tiny elephant chained to a stake behind his house, and starts showing up late for work because he needs to feed it so often using enormous bottles of baby formula. Now he’s uncertain as to what to do with it. He doesn’t know that his friend, overheard talking to someone on the phone, plans to sell it for meat, another serious problem in Africa.

When Precious and Grace learn of this, they are horrified and set about finding a path toward rescue. Enter Mma Potakwani’s orphan farm, with their many philanthropic agency connections. And she bakes a wonderful fruit cake.

Ah, yes, we’ve heard a good deal of this before, along with the plight of women whose husbands stray, and vice versa, and third cousins (everybody appears to be related to everyone else in Botswana) who come seeking money for help. And as nitpicky as Mma Makutsi may seem, we are pleasantly surprised to learn that she has a large and very generous heart.

Smith holds a deep and abiding love for Africa, which we sense in every word he produces. He taught and practiced law there for decades and writes wistfully of the changing ways, the courteous behavior and the Kalahari Desert, all of which seem to be shrinking, even vanishing with the urbanization of Botswana.

Alas, we who live in these dangerous times, like peoples of many nations, must soldier on. We are blessed with philosophers like Alexander McCall Smith who gently and longingly look back at our own past good fortunes. I once added his name to my imaginary list of authors with whom I would like to share dinner and maybe a drink. The list is short and sadly grows shorter with time. Here’s to powerful writers who bring out the best in others. And, perhaps, in us.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 18, 2020

How to Raise an Elephant: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (21)
by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Publication Date: November 24, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 1524749362
  • ISBN-13: 9781524749361