FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Dog, Man and God

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Yes, there is a white dog in Eleanor Morse’s lovely novel—lovely, in spite of its violence—and, it is with that dog that we should begin.  Apparently abandoned, or at least a stray, white dog (a female) begins following Isaac Muthethe when he escapes from South Africa into Botswana during the time when apartheid still strangled the country.  Isaac, a medical student, is forced to flee the country of his birth because he has witnessed the violent death of a black man by a team within the South African Defense Force.  White dog instinctively gravitates toward him because both are (no pun intended) underdogs.

Though the symbolism is grim, Isaac owes his survival to a hearse.  He was hidden below a corpse being driven over the border into Botswana, so the deceased could be buried in his homeland. Thus, Isaac is in Botswana illegally—according to the authorities—and getting a job is no easy matter.  By the time he finds a position as a gardener for an American woman named Alice, white dog has already begun following him around.  Though Isaac is close to starvation, he divides his first meal equally with the dog. The two become inseparable and, after several months, Isaac regains his strength and his dignity. Then, after a series of unfortunate decisions on his part—all designed to bring other members of his family to Botswana—he is accused of stealing money, which is actually his, taken by the police to a magistrate, a local chief, and accused of being a double agent.  Unfortunately, Alice is away on a trip and not there to defend him.

Isaac is handed over to the dreaded South African Defense Force, who drag him back into South Africa and incarcerate him in a foul prison.  What follows would seemingly imply that White Dog Fell from the Sky is an account of the horrors of South Africa’s prisons during apartheid.  But this is only partly so, because once Isaac is in prison,
White-DogMorse abruptly shifts her narrative back to Alice whose marriage is about to fall apart.  She’s an American, part of an expatriate community working in Botswana.  For a good hundred pages or so, Morse’s story reminded me of Norman Rush’s memorable novel, Mating (1991), also set in Botswana and centered upon the sexual activities (wife-swapping as I remember) of a group of expatriates. Africa has often been used by Western writers as the environment that unleashes sexual inhibitions, though—to her credit—Morse does not go there.

This is where White Dog Fell from the Sky hooked me by the author’s inventiveness and narrative skills, balanced carefully with an increasing focus on the more serious issues of culture and climate.  Alice meets a man considerably older than she, who is an expert on the !Kung San, one of the remaining indigenous tribal groups of Southern Africa, threatened with extinction.  Ian is so respected by the San that they say of him, “He is a San white man.” Though the two of them are together only briefly, the
attraction is as strong as a first love.  Like Alice, Ian is also married, so there are further complications—but none as bad as what he experiences when he begins a one-man crusade against the ranchers in the country.  Ian destroys the wire fences that demarcate their ranches so that hoofed animals can move freely out of areas where there is drought and reach the few remaining water holes.

The story that began as an accounting of apartheid’s dark reach into the neighboring countries around South Africa shifts to the lives of traditional peoples in the still unspoiled areas of Botswana and the few defenders of their culture. In a truly extraordinary scene, Ian is trampled  by the animals he had saved by cutting an opening in a wire fence so the animals can get to the other side.  The San give him a traditional burial.  “That afternoon, the small group of San moved camp so that no one would accidentally walk over the grave.  They moved west, in the direction of Tsao, carrying everything on their backs.  The only signature of their presence was the brief, lingering footprints, and the two sticks that Xixae placed in the ground so that her husband, who was out tracking a wounded steenbok, would know in which direction they had gone.”

After Ian’s death, there are still another hundred pages of Morse’s novel.  Alice, Isaac, and White Dog are alive, though scattered in different domains and seemingly adrift from the moorings that would give them succor.  That’s when Eleanor Morse works her magic as a novelist, expanding upon what appeared to be insignificant details in the earlier pages and drawing the narrative together in a breathless ending. White Dog Fell from the Sky is a richly nuanced story about love and survival in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles unleashed by apartheid’s far reach.

Eleanor Morse:  White Dog Fell from the Sky

Viking, 354 pp., $27.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.  

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
Margaret Kimberley
Liberal Hate for the Green Party
John Davis
Lost Peoples of the Lake
Alex Richardson-Price
The Fight for a Six Hour Workday
John Wight
Why Palestine Matters, Even on the Pitch
Brian Cloughley
Hillary Clinton’s War Policy
Patrick Cockburn
A Battle to the Death in Syria
David Rosen
The Great Fear: Miscegenation, Race “Pollution” and the 2016 Election
Ben Debney
Worthy and Unworthy Victims of Child Abuse
David Barouh
Liberal Myths: Would Al Gore Have Invaded Iraq?
Graham Peebles
Democratic Revolution Sweeps Ethiopia
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
How Parasitic Finance Capital Has Turned Iran’s Economy Into a Case of Casino Capitalism
David Swanson
The Unbearable Awesomeness of the U.S. Military
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail