Precious and Grace
When I read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I find that I have to slow down in order to enjoy it. The latest in the series, Precious and Grace, is no exception. Reading it at the beginning of spring break was one of my ideas for varying the usual pace of my days.
In all the books, Precious is happy to be a “traditionally built” large woman. In this latest one, she congratulates her friend, Mma Potokwane, who runs the “orphan farm,” for hiring a woman because she was “the most traditionally built lady of the five” who applied to be a housemother. She also tries to perch on a chair at a café which “was not a comfortable chair; too small, as so many chairs were. The trouble with café furniture was that it was not made for traditionally built people.” I would add that it’s especially hard to perch on such small chairs when you have bad knees which don’t easily bend under far enough to get your legs out of the way of other peoples’ feet.
In this book, Grace is trying to modernize the way Precious runs her business, even though Precious has always had an idealized view of the past, “the old Botswana ways…there had been the attitude that you should find time for other people and not always be in a desperate rush; there had been the belief that you should listen to other people, should talk to them, rather than spend all your time fiddling with your electronic gadgets.”
Grace’s words make Precious think about what progress has meant in her lifetime: “People were less concerned about other people, less prepared to help them, not so ready to listen to them. Did that mean that things were getting worse? Well, in her view it did—at least as far as those matters were concerned; in other respects, things were undoubtedly getting better. People had more of a chance in life no matter where they came from; those who worked for other people had more rights, were protected against the cruelty that employers could show in the past. That was an improvement. And the hospitals were better, and school bullies found it a bit harder to bully people; and there were fewer cruel nicknames; and fewer power cuts just when you wanted to cook the evening meal.”
Because she takes the time for reflection, Precious eventually begins to realize that Grace “could sometimes simplify things, but she was often very good at seeing the world from another perspective. Tall people could forget that the world might look quite different if you were short; and of course well-off people had a marked tendency to forget how things might look if you were poor. We have to remind ourselves, she thought. We have to remind ourselves how the world looked when viewed from elsewhere.”
Precious admires the way Grace doesn’t mince words, but calls things as she sees them. When she uses the word “skellums,” Precious thinks that it is “a fine word, that so effectively described a rogue or a rascal” and reflects that “now, perhaps, the skellums could get away with it because people were afraid to stand up to them, or were no longer sure what was right or wrong, or were afraid to identify wickedness or sleaze when they saw it.”
Precious can right wrongs because she feels compassion, and expresses it freely. When a friend has gotten other friends involved in what she realizes is a pyramid scheme, Precious says “Who among us has not done something stupid….I have done some very foolish things in my life. Everybody has” and she helps him repair the damage.
She is also good at verbalizing compliments. This is something that Walker has told me I should try to get better at, because I’m one of the many people in the world who think more nice things about others than they manage to say. Precious, on the other hand, tells one of her friends that “’there is nobody kinder than you.’ She meant it, and as she spoke, she thought how strange it was that we so very rarely said complimentary things to our friends, and how easy it was to do so, and how it made the world seem a less harsh place.”
Most of the realizations that come to Precious in this book may strike a modern reader as simplistic, and yet that’s part of the point—that if you look at the world as if it’s a very small place, a place where neighbors are responsible for taking care of each other—all sorts of moral and ethical quandaries become simpler. It’s easier to act on them, rather than remain paralyzed with indecision.
The actions Precious takes in this latest novel are based on her ideas about forgiveness. With the help of Grace, she finds ways to avoid “increasing the amount of suffering there is in the world.”
There is one thread in the novel that seems out of place, however. Even though Precious argues against Grace’s view about dogs–that they have no souls and are just “meat”–her treatment of a stray dog Fanwell has found seems curious. She tries to help out, thinking that “Fanwell was a kind young man, and it was much to his credit that he had bothered to do something about the dog, but he was in no position to see that gesture through and had to be protected from the unsustainable consequences of kindness, as did others who allowed their hearts to prompt them.” Sp she takes the dog home, where her adopted children Puso and Motholeli name it “Zebra” and she concludes that means that he “is no longer temporary—he is permanent.” But then after the dog has run away from where she had it tied up and then shows up again at her office, she does not take it home to her children, but gives it away to some orphans. The dog and the orphans have a happy ending, but nothing is said about how Puso and Motholeli feel about losing their dog.
Maybe the dog running away is meant to be an indication that he wasn’t happy with her children, or his journey shows that kindness is sometimes more complicated than we think it will be. The resolution of the dog’s story seems uncharacteristically ambiguous for this latest book in a series which always shows strength in simplicity.