The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

“Connections with others were what made life bearable…We all need reassurance, she thought. We all need people to tell us that everything is going to be all right, even when it is not, and that we should not worry, even when we clearly need to be concerned about something. We are only human, after all, and that is why reassurance is so important to us. That is undoubtedly well known.”

I am not generally fond of cozy mysteries, yet I love this series hard. I told a friend—who works as a therapist—that the #1 Ladies Detective books are the cheapest therapy on the planet, and she agreed.

My great thanks go to Edelweiss and Penguin Random House for the review copy. This charming tale will be for sale November 16, 2021.

As is usual, we have two equally important story lines woven into a single narrative. The detective story has to do with a client—a most unpleasant fellow, but a client, nonetheless—that has come to the agency looking for help with his father’s will. His father is still alive, but not entirely himself anymore, and is planning to leave his valuable home to his nurse. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are enlisted to dig up information about this woman, and to see if anything can be done to reverse his father’s decision. The second storyline concerns Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who has decided to invest in a dubious-sounding scheme to turn secondhand buses into a bus service. Mma Ramotswe is horrified, because in order to invest the necessary sum, it will be necessary to take out a bank loan, using the building that houses the businesses—Matekoni’s auto repair, and Ramotswe’s detective agency—as collateral. There’s also a smaller thread involving human trafficking of small children locally, and as usual, it is dealt with tidily and in a most entertaining fashion.

The book begins with Mma Ramotswe wondering what makes men happy. This is a tricky way to start a book, given the current social climate especially. Many readers, women in particular, are sensitive to having a male author write about a female character’s fervent longing to make her husband happy. The internal monologue could use some tightening up here, and that’s unusual for this writer. However, this passage is near the beginning, and once it’s done, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

What is the alchemy that makes this series so successful? Certainly at the start, there was the novelty. It’s unusual for an English-language series to be set in Botswana, or at least, it was when this one began. But it takes a lot more than that to sustain a series over so many years.

For me, the gentle humor goes a long way. I also appreciate the depth of respect for working people that shines out of every book in this series. Mma Potokwane, who runs the orphan farm and is Mma Ramotswe’s closest friend, reflects on the squabble over the old man’s will. “Rich people are always forgetting that they are only rich because of the work of others. They do not dig their money out of the ground, you know, Mma.”

Also? There are a lot of us out here that are also “traditionally sized,” and we love seeing lovable, successful characters that look, to some extent, like ourselves.

There’s the notion that people are inherently good—try finding that in your average noir detective story—and also, the idea that ordinary people can and should intervene to the best of their ability when they see wrongdoing. “Sometimes those people simply did not see what others could see; sometimes their hands were tied; sometimes they felt threatened. And all of that meant that there were times when it was left to people like them, a private detective and the matron of an orphan farm, to do what had to be done.”

This story, however, is singular in that both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi manage their husbands through deception. Grace Makutsi reveals that she gets her husband, Phuti, to take his vitamins by stirring them into his breakfast tea without telling him. Precious Ramotswe, when unable to persuade Matekoni not to apply for the bank loan, sneaks around behind his back, looking for a way to kill the deal without his knowing it. Neither of these things leads to marital disaster, yet I find myself wondering whether these things may come back on them in a future installment.

The fact that I find myself feeling concerned about the marriages of two women that are fictional, fictional, fictional says a great deal about Smith’s capacity to develop characters with depth and breadth.

I can talk about this series, and these characters, and this book all day. I’ve already come close to it. But the best way for you to appreciate it is to get this book. It comes out in a week, so I suggest you order a copy now. Highly recommended.

The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader.