White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse (NY: Penguin, 2013)
David and I don’t travel far from home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, going only as far as my bookstore in Northport on the days before and following the holidays. In imagination, however, and especially in the books we read, we are unconstrained by time and space. One gift that fell into in my bookseller life during the last, very wintry month of 2013 was a review copy of Eleanor Morse’s novel, White Dog Fell From the Sky.
Set in Botswana and South Africa during the period of apartheid (there is mention of Nelson Mandela still in prison), the novel weaves together the lives of a young black South African medical student and an older white American married woman. Alice came to Botswana with her economist husband to do government work, she in the Ministry of Local Government and Lands. She meets Isaac, an illegal refugee from the South African apartheid regime, when he comes to her house seeking work as a gardener, a task for which he is both unprepared and vastly overqualified.
We meet Isaac first. Upon his clandestine arrival in Botswana -- the border crossing a story in itself but quickly told, with quick flashbacks explaining its necessity -- Isaac meets by chance an acquaintance from South Africa, Amen, and, with little in the way of options, accepts Amen’s temporary hospitality, sharing the family’s single-room house and meals but declining to become involved with Amen’s mission, the then-violent ANC.
Isaac’s search for employment eventually leads him into Gabarone’s Old Village neighborhood and to the American couple’s house. If Alice had ever been in love with her husband, there is no longer much between them. When she learns he has been having an affair, he swears that it is “over,” but catching him in repeated lies convinces her otherwise. They have no children.
Alice does not want to be called “Madam,” she tells Isaac, and does not want a square or rectangular garden of marigolds. He should please himself with the garden design. Alice and Isaac recognize something in each other that commands respect, but their worlds touch only at the edges.
Isaac walks the long distance between Amen’s home and hers, adding hours to his workday, until Alice provides him with a bicycle. Now Alice has a job and a house, Isaac a job and a bicycle, but life for both is without any clear direction. Isaac has been cut off from his goal to become a doctor and see his siblings educated, and when Alice and her husband separate, their separation is uncertain and informal. Then on government expedition to gather information for the formulation of a land policy that will protect natives, their livestock, and wildlife, Alice meets Ian, an “uncivilized” Englishman whose passion is the !Kung San paintings in the Tsodilo Hills. And while she is away from home and falling in love with Ian, through a series of unfortunate blunders and outright indifference Isaac is arrested, deported, and imprisoned in South Africa.
What will become of Isaac? Is a future with Ian possible for Alice? At this point in the story, the worst is still ahead for all of them. But what of hope? If hope is reasonable at all, where does its reason lie?
Beginning with Isaac and Alice’s first meeting, I felt anxious in the back-and-forth movement between narrative lines. As fascinated as I was by the unfolding of whatever was happening with either Isaac or Alice, at the same time I couldn’t help worrying and wanting to get back to the other. The ignorance of both of what was happening with the other heightened that anxiety. Only when Alice and Isaac were in each other’s presence, speaking to each other, did I feel able to fill my lungs completely with breath, but even that was only momentary relief, as so many dangers and uncertainties and questions always persisted.
Of the characters we see at close range in this novel, most are good people. Not a single one is uniformly and always good and right, but they struggle, these people. In a beautiful land, they struggle in particular to see life as beautiful and meaningful. Whether or not – and how -- to try to “save the world” is a question that touches them all in one way or another.
Of other, more minor characters, such as prison guards, we see only a rough, inhumane surface. Even that made me think of the words of Nelson Mandela:
A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Morse gives us only glimpses of these oppressors robbed of their humanity. They are not the focus of her story, but what we see gives the truth to Mandela’s words.
White Dog, who seems to have come from nowhere, is no haunt but a real if exceptional dog, her character marked by loyalty and integrity, and in very important ways she serves as a home anchor for both Isaac and Alice, and later for Moses and Lulu. Drought and dust are other characters in the book. Hunger is a character stalking many. Another is torture, its essence mindless, pointless, unreasoning cruelty.
The language and especially the figures of speech in this novel are lyrical and rooted in the landscape of southern Africa. “He braced his mind the way a wildebeest braces its body against a sandstorm.” “Yellow grasses blew in the west wind, rippling, as though a hand were being drawn across them.” Can't you just see it? The imagery of the white butterfly migration early in the book recurs in a later section, and the sunken garden Isaac begins, only to find it suddenly flooding when he hits a water main with his pickax, is eerily similar to the flooded mining pit of his nightmares, from which his father makes no attempt to escape. Only one passage went beyond a lyrical realism for me into something that stretched credulity, but because the author had so surely and skillfully carried me until then, I accepted the magic of that moment.
A writer can give his or her fiction any locale on earth or beyond, but only a writer like Eleanor Morse, who knows and loves a real place and has the ability to evoke it in her work, can take readers there and inspire them with love as well. The qualities of the landscape, its flora and fauna, and particularly its people – black, white, brown, and grey – did not seem “faraway” or “exotic” as I lived my way through this story. It was with the greatest reluctance that I left them on the last page of the book, all of them so real to me that I keep thinking, That was years ago. Where are they now?
As 2013 came to a close, I asked myself what I would rank as #1 of all the novels I had read during the year. My nonfiction choice had been made without difficulty: Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, by Daphne Miller, M.D. (NY: William Morrow). Since closing the cover of the book reviewed here today and comparing it to other long fiction in my "Books Read 2013" list, at last I decided that this choice, too, was an easy one. My #1 fiction choice of 2013 is White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse.