A Fairy Tale Come True at the Library

by Bill Peak

What can I tell you about Peggielene Bartels? That she works as a secretary in Washington, D.C.? That she is black? That she drives a green 1992 Honda Accord? That she talks to her car each morning on the way into work as if it were an old but unreliable friend she must coax into making its way just one more time down Rock Creek Parkway? That she is a king?

That's right, she is a king. In 2008 (though by that time she had lived in the United States for 29 years and had long since become an American citizen), Peggielene Bartels received an entirely unexpected midnight call from her African homeland of Ghana. Through an ancient ritual involving the pouring of special libations at a sacred shrine, it had been determined that “the ancestors” had selected her to be the new king of her native Otuam.

King Peggy is the true story of Peggielene Bartels' ensuing relationship with her subjects and her native land. It is also this year's One Maryland One Book. One Maryland One Book is the program of the Maryland Humanities Council in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. For six years now, I have read each and every One Maryland One Book, and I have to tell you, this year's selection tells a story unlike anything I have ever read before.

King Peggy is at once a fairy tale come true, a study in human nature and the uses and abuses of power, and an inspirational (and often very funny) story of what one person with good intentions, strong faith, and a heart of gold can achieve. For however appealing the prospect of waking up one day to find yourself the ruler of a foreign land, the reality, inevitably, turns out to be something less ... and, in some ways, more ... than a storybook romance.

When Peggielene returns to Otuam for her enthronement, she begins to suspect that the real reason her royal council has accepted the ancestors' choice for king is that its members—coming from a culture where men traditionally hold sway over women—believe her selection means they can continue to use the fees and taxes they collect from Peggy's subjects to feather their own nests. For years now they have bamboozled Peggy's weak and ineffectual predecessor, in the process enriching themselves while leaving the people of Otuam poor and dispirited. But even as a secretary, Peggielene Bartels was never one to suffer fools gladly, and it turns out that being king hasn't changed her attitude toward that particular type one little bit.

If you liked Alexander McCall Smith's novels featuring the famed Botswanan lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, you'll love King Peggy, for she is the real thing. On Monday, September 9, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, September 12, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of this year's One Maryland One Book. Won't you join me?