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Eleanor Morse’s "White Dog Fell from the Sky"

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.