Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
With Blue Shoes and Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith returns to
Botswana, where the offices of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency are firmly
ensconced at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Precious Ramotswe is sharing the space
with her assistant, Grace Makutsi. With her detective business humming along,
Mma Ramotswe is coping with a variety of difficulties including the moodiness of
her husband, Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni. In the office, a potentially lethal cobra
has managed to hide itself under Mma Makutsi's desk. Several incidents need
investigating: a nurse from a local medical clinic reveals that faulty
blood-pressure readings are being recorded there, and a woman writes a letter
saying that she risks losing her job because she knows that her boss is stealing
food in order to serve elaborate meals to her husband. And down at the game
reserve in Mokolodi, witchcraft seems to be brewing, but the fearful inhabitants
will say nothing about what is happening.
And there's trouble afoot as well in Mma Makutsi's life. After her fiancé Phuti
Radiphuti hears a feminist speaking on the radio he has a frightening dream, and
begins to wonder whether Grace Makutsi may belong to that fearsome category of
female. When he doesn't turn up for their customary dinner date, she in turn
begins to fear that he is having second thoughts about their engagement. These
events combined with Mma Ramotswe's warmth, humor, and wisdom provide readers
with pleasures far greater than the simple satisfaction found in mysteries
solved and justice done.
"We are all human beings, and human beings can't really help themselves.
Have you noticed that, Mma? We can't really help ourselves from doing things
that land us in all sorts of trouble" (p. 4). From this observation, spoken
by Mma Ramotswe to Mma Makutsi, proceeds the plot of Blue Shoes and
Happiness. How are the characters in this story
responsible for creating their own problems?
Why does Mma Ramotswe rely so loyally upon the advice of Clovis
Andersen's The Principles of Private Detection? Consider this
example: "Keep your mouth shut at all times, but at the same time encourage
others to do precisely the opposite" (p. 12). What does Mma Ramotswe admire
about such advice? How does she judge the quality of the advice given by
Aunty Emang, the newspaper columnist? What do you think of Aunty Emang's
advice? What about Clovis Andersen's?
Much of the satisfaction of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels
lies in their precise observations of daily life as experienced by women:
"That was part of being a woman, [Mma Ramotswe] thought; one never reached
the end. Even if one could sit down and drink a cup of bush tea, or even two
cups, one always knew that at the end of the tea somebody was waiting for
something" (pp. 12-13). Is it at all surprising that the writer of these
observations is a man? Why do you suppose that Alexander McCall Smith has so
much empathy for his female characters?
Although the HIV/AIDS crisis is a major health problem facing Africa
today Alexander McCall Smith addresses it in subtle and delicate ways in his
series such as in the following exchange: "Ever since women allowed men to
think that they did not need to get married, everything has gone wrong," Mma
Ramotswe tells a client. The client replies, "Look at the mess. Look at what
all this unfaithfulness has done. People are dying because of that, aren't
they?" (pp. 35-36). How does the author address the crisis in this book, and
if you've read the others, in the series? Why do you think he handles it in
this fashion? How do you feel about his treatment of the crisis?
Charlie and the younger apprentice fail to trap a cobra that has invaded
the office. Why might the chapter's title, "Correct and Incorrect Ways of
Dealing With a Snake," also be "Correct and Incorrect Ways of Being a Man"?
Why does Mma Ramotswe conclude about the incident, "Snakes were one of the
tests which life sent for us, and there was no telling how we might respond
until the moment arrived. Snakes and men. These were the things sent to try
women, and the outcome was not always what we might want it to be" (p. 26)?
Grace Makutsi has several mental conversations with her shoes; see for
instance pages 64-65 and 108. How do they convey a part of Mma Makutsi's
character? What do the blue shoes represent for her? How difficult is it for
her to come to terms with the fact that they were not a practical purchase?
What is the mistake that Mma Makutsi makes when telling Phuti Radiphuti
that she is feminist (pp. 54-55), and why doesn't she see this problem in
advance? What feelings does she evoke when she says to herself, "I am a girl
from Bobonong, with glasses." (p. 88)?
In Mokolodi a tourist asks Mma Ramotswe to take a photograph of her and
a friend who, she says, is terminally ill (pp. 126-27). Discuss this
incident, with regard to Mma Ramotswe's actions and her feelings about the
dying woman. Discuss also the passage on page 114, which describes Mma
Ramotswe's feelings about her father and about her baby who died. What do
these scenes tell us about Mma Ramotswe's spiritual qualities?
Mma Tsau, who has threatened Poppy with dismissal, turns out to be a
woman who loves her philandering husband too much. How does Mma Ramotswe
deal with the villains of the novelMma Tsau, Aunty Emang, and Dr. Lubega?
What skills does she use in solving these cases? How does her attitude
differ toward each of the women and why?
Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni's two apprentices are representative, for Mma
Ramotswe, of a larger problem with the future of Botswana: the young people
are abandoning the culture's traditional values. Regarding the promiscuity
of girls and boys alike, she thinks, "One should just not do it, because
that was not how the old Botswana morality worked. There was such a thing as
shame although there were many people who seemed to forget it" (p. 59). Does
it seem that, according to Mma Ramotswe, relations between men and women are
crucial to the structures upon which society rests?
The old Botswana morality is exemplified in the following passage: "So
it was in Botswana, almost everywhere; ties of kinship, no matter how
attenuated by distance or time, linked one person to another, weaving across
the country a human blanket of love and community. And in the fibres of that
blanket there were threads of obligation that meant that one could not
ignore the claims of others. Nobody should starve; nobody should feel that
they were outsiders; nobody should be alone in their sadness" (p. 68). Do
these ethical principles of responsibility and caring still exist as a basic
element of American culture? How are they reflected in this book? Do they
seem as pervasive in Botswana as Mma Ramotswe believes?
Alexander McCall Smith has said that his novels "represent the range of
things I would like to say about the world." What are the most important
ideas among the "range of things" represented by this book and others in the
Book reviewers and fans agree that the novels in the No. 1 Ladies'
Detective Agency series give a great deal of reading pleasure. Does this
pleasure mask their moral seriousness, or is their moral seriousness part of
what makes them pleasurable?
A typographic design, repeating the word Africa, follows the novel's
final sentence. How does this affect your reading of the ending, and what
emotion does it express?
William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa; Agatha Christie, Sleeping
Murder; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Nuruddin Farah, Gifts;
Alexandra Fuller, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight; Nadine Gordimer,
Telling Tales; Bessie Head, When Rain Clouds Gather; Elspeth Huxley,
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood; Doris
Lessing, The Grass Is Singing; Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country;
Norman Rush, Mating; Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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