Often a bit behind the times, I belatedly noticed an interesting slim volume on the shelves today, by Alexander McCall Smith. The title was Precious and the Puggies, and the subtitle Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case. But I also noticed it was published by Itchy Coo. What a (hem hem) coup!
I thought I’d mentioned Itchy Coo before, a long time ago, but a trawl through the obvious tags on my LJ didn’t turn up anything, so I’d better explain – Itchy Coo publish children’s books in Scots. The level varies between ABC and teen. Many are written for the purpose; others present Roald Dahl and A.A. Milne in the original Scots (The Eejits, Geordie’s Mingin Medicine, The Sleekit Mr. Tod, The Hoose at Pooh’s Neuk, Winnie the Pooh in Scots).
With such illustrious authors already on the list, Precious and the Puggies still represents a departure. For the first time, Itchy Coo have published a book in Scots about an international best-selling character, by the original author, before it appears in any other language. (Actually McCall Smith wrote it in English and it was translated into Scots by James Robertson, but with McCall Smith’s full support.) It won’t be available in English until later this year, approximately a year after its Scots publication.
This seems to have resulted in mixed reviews on Amazon, as those who knew what they were getting have rated it highly, while those who didn’t realise the book was in Scots have collectively blown a gasket (with the honourable exception of one American, to whom I doff my hat). That’s a bit sad, if unfortunately inevitable.
I’m glad this book exists. But do I like it?
I haven’t read any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books – or indeed any other McCall Smith, apart from a few snippets of the 44 Scotland Street series in The Scotsman. I’m not grabbed by the kitchen sink style of what I’ve seen, and I don’t know what to think about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. On the one hand, I’m concerned that an older Scottish white dude – albeit born in Zimbabwe – writing about black ladies in Botswana runs a very real risk of being paternal, Imperialist, or both. On the other, I think imaginative writing shouldn’t be limited by who you are. I guess the acid test is whether the writing is appreciated by black ladies in Botswana. If on the whole it is, then it would be pretty presumptuous of me to have a beef about it. Unfortunately I don’t know how it’s received in Botswana.
So I’m writing from a position of ignorance in a number of ways.
With that in mind, it’s plain it’s not a typical member of the series. Besides being in Scots, it’s targeted at children, it’s quite slim (79 pages) and it tells how the 8-year old Precious Ramotswe decides she would like to become a detective, and how she solves her first “case”, many years before forming her real detective agency. At a cover price of £6.99, I would say, unfortunately, it’s over-priced.
There isn’t much of a mystery about it; the clue’s in the title, and even the cover art rather gives it away, although the resolution provides some reason to keep reading beyond the revelation! The plot’s reasonable for a primary school reader of about the same age as Precious; not too basic, but not too demanding, allowing the reader to concentrate on understanding the Scots. A confident Scots speaker shouldn’t have too much difficulty with the language, and there’s a glossary at the back if you get stuck on a word.
Since there isn’t a single standard written form of Scots as there is for English, most readers will have some moments of hesitancy or doubts as to the authenticity of a spelling or phrase. James Robertson seems to have quite a reconstructionist style, rather than trying to mimic a particular dialect, which may make his prose a little more prone to these doubts. I share them; but a synthesis like this is probably inevitable in a successful written Scots revival, and likely to lose its unfamiliarity.
If the book were set in Scotland, rather than just written in Scots, it would be classic kailyard, and I suspect this is true of the adult books too. This is not necessarily a bad thing – give me any kailyard in preference to The House with the Green Shutters – but does mean that easy reading takes preference over social comment. Some moments of characterisation are quite effective though, and hint at greater depth.
The resolution may leave some a bit uncomfortable – as it did me – with an impression of lip service being paid to some obvious concerns. If you’re buying for your kids, I would recommend checking out whether you think the ending is appropriate first.
This book is an event buy for fans of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency who aren’t afraid to dip their toe into Scots, and would also be a good read for primary school Scots readers. It is a bit overpriced for what it is, and if you’re not comfortable with at least giving Scots a go, you should wait for the eventual release in other languages. Gavin Greig.out of 5 stars. March 12th 2011.