Alexander McCall Smith's third book in 2009 (after The Lost Art of Gratitude, the sixth Isabel Dalhousie book, and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, the tenth Mma Ramotswe book) is a bit of a departure from his usual approach. It takes place in England, with only one brief mention of Edinburgh and none at all of Botswana. It probably is not going to spawn a series: he pretty much covers the central character's whole life in this one volume. Most of the story takes place during World War II, and it's rather serious for McCall Smith. Lavender Stone--La for short--is betrayed, widowed, and sent to the country where she, a Cambridge scholar, tends chickens to help the war effort.
And yet the McCall Smith fan club, of which I am a devout member, will not be disappointed in La's Orchestra Saves the World. Once again the incredibly prolic author tells a short, uncomplicated, gentle story about a good woman who speaks in simple sentences and probably thinks too much. Get past the first chapter, which somewhat confusingly bookends the story: it doesn't make a lot of sense until you've read the rest of the tale, so read it quickly and then come back to it later. The real story starts in chapter 2, which begins: "La's childhood was spent in the shadow of Death."
As always, McCall Smith pokes fun at the foibles of his very human characters: a man-hating academic, a venial pig farmer, a philandering husband. But he does this in the nicest way, because for McCall Smith, an ethicist by training, the bottom line is always kindness, even and perhaps especially toward the undeserving. Why, for example, should La fix up a nice room for the injured Polish airman-turned-farmworker?
Surely she should feel indifferent towards him--there were so many displaced persons, people washed up by the war, people from somewhere else--and yet already she felt that looking after him was something that she had to do. But why? Because he was in need and he was about to cross her path. That, perhaps, was the basis of our responsibility to one another; the simple fact that we collided with one another.Like other McCall Smith characters, La does not base her ethics on theology.
"We can't afford to be without God," Feliks continued.... If you take God out of it, then right and justice become small, human things. And weak things, too."And as in other McCall Smith books, there are no heroes, no stars, no larger-than-life characters. If La's orchestra saves the world, the world is unaware of it. Near the end of the book, when La is in her 50s, she looks out her kitchen window at fields and clouds, and this is what she thinks:
La thought about this. He was right, perhaps, even if she did not feel that she needed God in the same way Feliks seems to need him. She would do whatever she had to do--even if it was for the sake of simple decency. You did not wipe a child's tears because God told you to do so. You did it because the tears were there.
For her, life seemed unchanged, barely touched by the movements and shifts of the times. Again I have missed it, she thought; heady things are happening, and I am not there; I am somewhere in the wings, watching what is happening on the stage, in a play in which I have no real part. That is what my life has been.... I have been a handmaiden; she relished the word--a handmaiden; one who waits and watches; assists, perhaps, but only in a small way....This is a small book, and it will not change the world. But it is perfect for a long winter's evening, and it will increase the sum of goodness in the world.
So each of us, thought La, each one of us should do something to make life better for somebody, to change the course of events, even if only in the most local sense. Even a handmaiden can do something about that.