White Dog Fell from the Sky is as beautiful and profound a novel about love as any I have read. With grace and power it presents all the forms of love the heart is capable of holding: love born of compassion and of passion, love of family and of country, the blinding, feral love for one’s children, for any child, the helpless love for suffering animals, the love of justice that compels us to act, despite our fear.
The story unfolds in Botswana in the mid-1970’s. Across the border in South Africa the jaws of apartheid are grinding black citizens to bone and dust; those caught rebelling face torture and death in prison. A young medical student, Isaac Muthethe, escapes across the border in a hearse, hoping to create a new life and eventually smuggle his younger siblings into Botswana before apartheid swallows them whole. A stranger to Botswana, with no contacts or destination, Isaac begins walking. Behind him is a dog who appeared out of nowhere and who refuses to be left behind. Isaac names him White Dog and so by naming him, becomes attached to him as a symbol of survival and unconditional love.
By chance Isaac encounters an old chum, Amen, who is a member of the South African resistance movement, the ANC. Amen invites Isaac into his household. Fortuitously, Isaac is hired as a gardener by Alice Mendelssohn, an American woman in a nearby town.
Alice’s story, which begins as her marriage comes to an end, becomes linked to Isaac’s by a spark of compassion. It’s as if her heart knows its way before her head has a chance to object. She welcomes Isaac into her home with matter-of-fact generosity, while her mind is distracted by the stress of a stuttering marriage coming to a cold stall.
To put some distance between herself and her present reality, Alice leaves town on a research trip to the great veldt of Botswana - remote, removed, cut off from her town life. Alice asks Isaac to remain in her home during her absence. He is overwhelmed by her sudden trust, yet determined to be worthy of her respect. Alice is surprised to fall in sudden love with a taciturn British anthropologist, Ian Henry. She delays her return home to explore the possibility of a future with this solitary man, her senior by a generation.
When Alice returns several weeks later, Isaac has disappeared. His beloved companion, White Dog, remains behind, waiting for him, nearly dead from starvation. In the kitchen an uneaten bowl of porridge sits spoiled on the table, as if Isaac had been interrupted at his breakfast.
Isaac’s fate takes the reader into dark and terrible places; Alice’s quest to find him reveals the light of compassion and the depth of love.
In addition to love, the themes of social justice and political realities in Africa play central roles in the narrative. Man-made borders, that between Botswana and South Africa, the separation of blacks and whites, the barriers of language, social class and nationality as well as the fences designed to keep wildlife away from pasture land, create a sense of confinement and claustrophobia that is at ironic odds with the vast savanna of southern Africa.
Eleanor Morse’s prose captures the searing heat and treacherous beauty of Botswana; her characters touch every sense with a Babel of languages, revealing eyes or masked expressions, the salt on their skin, the sweat that clings to their clothes, the hair that shows or belies their ages. The tension she maintains leaves the reader raw and unable to let the book rest – the story compels as much as it shatters.
There is something very classic about Morse's writing style. This is the work of a mature, confident writer – making me think of Margaret Atwood, Shirley Hazzard, Richard Ford, Iris Murdoch. It could have been written thirty years ago instead of last year – there is an elegance, an ease, a straightforward storytelling style that contains not the least trace of contemporary self-consciousness.
I implore you to read this beautiful book. Your soul will tremble, your heart will ache and you will be changed as a reader.