Book Review: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

I’ve mentioned before that I love Alexander McCall Smith’s series No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, both the book and the TV series adaptation.  I always seem to find the most tender moments of humanity come from the characters in this book through Smith’s words.  I wanted to take some time to share some of the beautiful ideas in this 10th book in the series.  (I read the American edition, but couldn’t link to the American edition on the website.)

Many reflections of the main character, Precious Ramotswe, are the ones that I find most touching in this book.  Here, she reflects on the value of the relationships formed by those of her father’s generation that kept everyone connected: “At one time, there had been no strangers in Botswana; everybody fitted in somehow, even if tenuously and on the margins” (32).  Technology keeps us connected today, but I’m not sure that I develop the same types of relationships, knowing who’s who and finding commonalities between me and new acquaintances, that my parents might have formed by simply talking to people in person.

I also treasure Precious’ thoughts on figuring out what we believe in: “We had to believe in something, she thought.  We had to believe in kindness and courtesy and telling the truth” (41).  This touches on something that is so basic and pure and simple, that can cross belief systems and pull people together.  I had the same reaction when I read Precious’ thoughts about the big questions in life: “We were tiny creatures, really; tiny and afraid, trying to hold our place on the little platform that was our earth.” (150)  Smith’s words about the vulnerabilities that afflict each of us at one time or another have a way of bringing us down a notch and take us to a place that is simple but still gives us perspective on life.  I had a similar appreciation of the following thoughts expressed by Precious when reading an “intense” chapter where Precious’ emotional state is a bit unsteady, and where she once again finds peace human interaction: “And most of all I am grateful to you for being my friend, Mma; I am grateful to you for that.  That is the best thing that anybody can be to anybody else- a friend.” (185)  I know it’s sentimental!  But it cuts once again to someplace deep in my heart and somehow makes the daily grind seem trivial and needing less focus than what is true and common among all of us.

Of course, I cannot discuss this book without mentioning one of Smith’s shout outs to the merits of Botswana and Africa in general: “Poor Africa, it did not deserve the things that had been done to it.  Africa, which could stand for love and happiness and joy, could also be a place of suffering and shame.  But that suffering was not the only story, thought Mma Ramotswe.  There was a story of courage and determination and goodness that could be told as well, and she was proud that her country, her Botswana, had been part of that”  (150)  I teach students about Francophone Africa in my classes, and it’s surprising (although it shouldn’t be) how little American students know about African countries, and how few positive things my students know about what happens in any countries in Africa.  I’ve never been anywhere in Africa although Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, and Senegal are all top on my list.  In the meantime, and maybe this comes from people thinking negatively about my family’s home country, India, I feel that I play an important role in getting others to get educated and to think positively about all places around the world, the continent of Africa included.  Smith’s evident love of Africa (former professor at University of Botswana) is one of the many reasons why I love this book series so much!

I’ll add one more quote from Precious Ramotswe.  She comes to a realization about one of the other characters in the book, who, based on his actions, is often disparaged by her, her husband, and her friend and partner Mma Makutsi (72).  I turned this one into an image:

Tea Time Quote

It’s absolutely true, and it takes humility on her part and on ours to admit it.

I want to finish by mentioning a couple of quotes by characters other than Precious.

In one scene, we hear from Bishop Trevor Mwamba during a conversation over tea with Precious, when they are speaking about the fate of the world: “Our concern should be what is happening right now.  There is plenty of work for love to do” (56).  Another simple sentiment that goes to the core of what we’re all about.

And finally, I loved this thought expressed via the character J. L. B. Matekoni, as he reflects on the disappointment felt by his young son when his team loses a game: “You wanted things so much- that was it: you wanted things so much that you ached.  And sometimes you believed that you could make the things you yearned for happen, just by willing them” (204).  I think we can all relate to these feelings!  I remember feeling this yearning over the dumbest things when I was a kid, like wanting pretty pencils or notepads from a gift shop, or wanting relatives to come visit, or even wanting certain things for dinner!  J. L. B, of course, goes on to tell a story about wanting his uncle to be alive, once again setting me in my place about the things that are really important in life.

I’ll be taking a break from reading this series to read some Louise Erdrich, who’ll be coming to speak as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival this spring.  But I’ll pick up the series for a few more good reads this summer.

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