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The latest installment in the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a blend of wit and wisdom, and a profoundly touching tale of the human heart.
At a cattle post south of Gaberone, two cows have been killed, and Precious Ramotswe is asked to investigate. It is an intriguing problem with plenty of suspects, including her client. To complicate matters, Mma Ramotswe is haunted by a vision of her little white van, and Grace Makutsi witnesses it as well. In the meantime, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s apprentices may have gotten a girl pregnant and, under pressure to marry her, run away. Grace’s wedding to Phuti Radiphuti is also approaching and shoes need to be bought. Naturally, it is up to Mma Ramotswe to sort things out.
1. The New York Times Book Review has noted, “As always in Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle celebrations of life in this arid patch of southern Africa, the best moments are the smallest.” Discuss how this is true. Does your reading of these novels inspire you to appreciate the small, precious moments and things in your own life?
2. Why is Precious Ramotswe so attached to her little white van, even after it is long gone? What is it about certain physical objects for us? Do you have one particular object, large or small, that you are especially attached to? Why? Is it the object itself that you cling to or is it to the memories that you have associated with it?
3. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is always referred to as “that fine man” or “that excellent man, proprietor of Tloweng Road Speedy Motors.” What makes him fine and excellent? And why is his job always attached to his name, even by his wife?
4. How much importance do you put on efficiency? Why does Mma Ramotswe think that, “if efficiency were the only value in this life, then we would be content to eat bland, but nutritious food everyday.” (p. 5) What other values are equally, if not more important in this life—in work and in play?
5. It is very clear, over the course of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, that “Charlie (Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s apprentice) did not follow the old Botswana ways.” (p. 19) What does this mean? What are the “old Botswana ways”? Who does follow them?
6. In The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Mma Ramotswe says, “Each of us had something that made it easier to continue in a world that sometimes, just sometimes, was not as we might wish it to be.” (p. 54) What is that you need to get your mind off anxieties or problems in your own life—“a drive in the country . . . a quiet cup of tea”? Why do we all need these small pleasures to release us from looming problems and issues?
7. Mma Ramotswe remembers witnessing with her father a group of birds being attacked by a snake, and he encouraged her not to do anything. Why? What lesson was he teaching young Precious?
8. Mma Ramotswe periodically quotes from Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection. One she particular believes in and repeats is “the more you listen, the more you learn” (p. 110). What is it about this book and the pithy sayings it offers that appeals to Mma Ramotswe in moments of indecision? Do you have a book you turn to when you need reassurance or pleasure?
9. There is much talk of beef stews and pumpkins and cake in these novels, and in one instance in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Mma Ramotswe thinks about dinner and says, “Life was very full.” Describe some of the dishes you remember in the novel.
10. Do you think Mma Ramotswe makes the right decision to turn to Mpho’s mother when the little boy shares the secret of the crime he committed? What would you have done in this predicament?
11. Discussions about the differences between men and women come up quite a bit in the novels, and in this novel in particular. What are some of the stereotypes that various characters discuss? Do you agree with them?
12. Mma Ramotswe appreciates the people in her life: her husband, her assistant detective/friend, her father. “That we have the people we have in this life, rather than others, is miraculous, she thought, a miraculous gift.” Discuss the people in your life that you are most thankful for and why.
13. Discuss how Grace Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe react differently to Charlie and his problem. Why is Grace more judgmental that her boss? Why do you think Mma Ramotswe is more successful in dealing with Charlie?
14. Mma Ramotswe appreciates the people in her life: her husband, her assistant detective/friend, her father. “That we have the people we have in this life, rather than others, is miraculous, she thought, a miraculous gift.” Discuss the people in your life that you are most thankful for and why.
15. The Christian Science Monitor has written that in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, “Kindness is paramount.” Do you agree with this? And what do you think Alexander McCall Smith is trying to promote by writing these “kind” novels?
16. Discuss the titles of each of the chapters and the title of the book. What do these offer to the experience of reading the novel? Do you think Alexander McCall Smith has fun coming up with these titles?
17. Mma Ramotswe walks around her garden every morning and evening, noticing the flowers, trees, and birds. She also revels in the beauty of the Botswana countryside. Discuss the importance of nature in this novel.
18. Alexander McCall Smith is clearly a master wordsmith. Why do you think he chooses to use relatively simple language and plot lines in his novels? How does the language and rhythm correspond to the message of the novels? Connect this to one of the final sentences of the novel, “simple questions—and simple answers—were what we needed in life.” What is Alexander McCall Smith saying about life?
Alexander McCall Smith is also the author of the Isabel Dalhousie series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served on many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe, and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland with his wife, and plays the bassoon in the Really Terrible Orchestra in his spare time.