White Dog Fell from the Sky
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Apartheid South Africa, 1976. Isaac Muthethe, a medical student, witnesses the brutal murder of his friend by the predominately white South African Defense Force. He flees the country, leaving his family behind and seeking asylum in neighboring Botswana, where he finds work as a gardener for Alice Mendelssohn, a white American. Alice's own life is in upheaval between her failing marriage, her abandoned PhD studies and her slow adjustment to the language, politics and landscape of life in Africa. Both outsiders, Alice and Isaac form an unlikely friendship. When Alice heads into the African bush on a work-related trip, she is confronted with both temptation and tragedy.
Meanwhile, Isaac is arrested, deported, imprisoned and tortured. As Isaac fights for his dignity and his life, his young sister and brother arrive at Alice's doorstep. The decisions that Alice must make entwine her life with Isaac's in ways that neither of them could have anticipated. Filled with breathtaking descriptions of the harsh and beautiful landscape of Botswana and the difficult emotional terrain within all of us, White Dog Fell from the Sky is a poignant novel of love, friendship, race and politics. Eleanor Morse has written a totally engrossing novel of the interconnectedness of lives, the role of fate and the possibility of faith in a world that includes both the goodness and the unspeakable brutality of human beings.
Eleanor Morse is the author of An Unexpected Forest, which won the Independent Publisher's Gold Medalist Award for the Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast U.S., and was selected winner of Best Published Fiction by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.
- The White Dog is a constant presence throughout the book—an important part of the novel but not in the forefront of the action. What does the White Dog mean to you?
- What did you think of the way the story was told from varying points of view, alternating between chapters? Was this an effective way to tell this story?
- In talking about Amen, Isaac says he understands why a woman could love him, "He'd mastered fear. He knew what his life was being lived for " (p. 47). Discuss the different forms of masculinity evidenced by the characters of Amen, Isaac, Lawrence, Hasse and Ian.
- Isaac says, "Every person alive thinks they are the center of the universe, that they are everything, when in fact each of us is less than nothing" (p. 48). Do you agree?
- Discuss the role of marriage and marital fidelity among the characters in this novel. What types of marriages and unions are forged and tested in the novel?
- Isaac is a refugee, displaced from his home and family by necessity. Alice is an expatriate, living far from her native Cincinnati by choice. They both miss their homes. How does living as outsiders affect Alice and Isaac?
- Alice is a part of a community of white Americans and Europeans working in southern Africa. Are they helping or hurting the native people?
- Isaac has a great sense of duty and obligation to his family back in South Africa. He holds himself to high standards of integrity and is committed to providing a better life for his family. How does his sense of duty compare with those of the young men and women in this culture?
- Ian has never been able to imagine a conventionally domestic life for himself. If his story hadn't ended as it did, do you believe that he and Alice would have been able to create a life together?
- How much did you know about apartheid, the African National Congress and the political situation in South Africa before reading this novel? What did you learn from Isaac's story?
- When Alice and Ian head off together for their time in the Tsodilo Hills, he shows her his journal in which he has recorded a story of creation from the San Bushmen: "The San people say this is where the world began . . ." (p. 173). What similarities does this creation story have to others you know?
- Do you have hope for Isaac at the end of the novel?
Q. You write so vividly about Africa and spent some time teaching there. Could you elaborate on your time and experiences?
I first went to Botswana in the summer of 1969 to visit a man I'd met in college. He'd been raised in Botswana and came to the U.S. on a four-year scholarship. I had barely heard of Botswana before we met and had never met anyone like him. I'm embarrassed to say how entranced I was by his exotic roots and British accent. After his student visa ran out, we wrote letters across continents for a couple of years. Finally I decided that I needed to answer the question of whether this man was going to be in my life or not. We spent the summer together in Botswana, and I returned to this country for graduate school. Shortly after, we were engaged by transatlantic cable and were married in the U.S. the following summer. I finished graduate school, he began graduate school, and we returned to Botswana in 1972.
By the time we went back, Botswana had been independent from Britain for just six years. The democratically elected president, Sir Seretse Khama, was a highly intelligent, well-educated, and principled statesman. Diamonds were discovered after independence, along with rich deposits of copper nickel, and the government ended up on one of the most solid financial footings on the continent of Africa. Foreign aid poured in from Sweden, England, the U.S., Canada, and other countries. Botswana had no large army siphoning off funds; schools, hospitals and clinics were built; roads were hewn out of the bush. Gaborone, the capital, grew rapidly. It was a spirited and optimistic place to be at a time when race riots were tearing U.S. cities apart, and Vietnam was still a battleground.
I worked as the head of the National Office of Extra Mural Services (the adult education wing of the tricountry University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland). We provided literacy instruction to adults and gave training courses to agricultural demonstrators and community development workers. During the time I was there, we also ran a large-scale national radio learning campaign funded by the Swedish government. The purpose of that effort was to help people in the remotest areas of the country understand what it meant to be part of a newly formed country. We trained radio learning group leaders to lead discussions in villages, distributed four thousand radios to every corner of the country, and produced and broadcast radio programs in Setswana.
Our son was born in 1973, the year of that campaign. (Our daughter would be born seven years later, after we returned to the United States.)
My husband, who became the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, was a citizen of Botswana and spoke Setswana like a native. This gave us access to areas of the country that most whites didn't see. Some weekends, we'd drive our truck out and camp. We met people everywhere. Still, our home was in the capital and most of our friends were there working as consultants on two- to three-year contracts.
I was astonished by the land. The heat of it. The wide sky, the thirst of animals, the ferocity of thunder when we were lucky enough to get rain. The wild trees with their deep taproots that put out white blooms, even when they hadn't seen rain in several years. The cattle and goats, raking the earth for the smallest sustenance. My mind needed to reinvent the definition of beauty. Instead of green grass, shrubs, trees, lakes and mountains, it was the vast horizon, the determined life of flora and fauna. And then there was the Okavango swamp in the north, home to such a staggering glory of wildlife and birds. Never before had I felt in the marrow of my bones the importance of water for all living things.
Part of the fascination (and at times, challenge) of writing this book was the dual consciousness that I held throughout. My memories were drawn from a time when I was a young woman, still inexperienced and naÏve in so many ways; the imagination that powered the story came from an older, more mature, quite different perspective.
While I lived in Botswana, I was of course aware of the deeply disturbing specter of apartheid next door. But in my younger years, I wasn't able to imagine fully what it would be like to be a black person living under apartheid. I half imagined it, but I didn't have the emotional experience or perhaps the fortitude to let that imagining go right through me. To write this book, I needed to find the courage to go to that deeper place.
Q. What kind of research did you do on African language, apartheid and the San Bushmen in order to write White Dog?
During the writing, I wanted to keep the images in my head from the 1970s as intact as possible, not blend them with what the country has become today. So rather than return to Botswana to do research, I immersed myself in books, maps, journal articles, videos, newspapers and old letters. I found the research on !Kung San rock paintings and Bushman language and belief systems wonderfully interesting and absorbing. Researching the years of apartheid was heartbreaking, as were articles about the long-term effects of torture. The most helpful of these sources are mentioned in my acknowledgments.
I learned a little Setswana while I lived in southern Africa. Many words I thought I'd forgotten popped into my head while I was working on the book. It was fascinating to watch that part of my brain wake up. Beyond this reclaimed language, I relied heavily on a slim dictionary and phrase book written by a Reverend A. J. Wookey. I also received help from my former husband and asked the Botswana embassy in Washington to check over the Setswana in the final manuscript. Setswana is a Bantu language spoken by a little more than a million people in Botswana and nearly three and a half million people in South Africa. The orthography has undergone many changes, and at times, it was a puzzle to figure out the current spelling of a word. Setswana is a beautiful tonal language, spoken like music. That lilt was not possible to capture on the page, but I hope that a reader will be able at least to hear the sound of the words.
Q. The African landscape has a strong effect on Alice's psyche. You live on Peaks Island, Maine, obviously a very different landscape from Botswana. Are there any similarities?
Every day on the island, an untamable ocean reminds me that human beings are not the center of the universe. In Botswana, the relentlessness of the sun and the hugeness of the sky offered a similar reminder. The wind rippling semi-arid grasslands looks very similar to wind raking waves. In both settings, the wind is similar, and the unpredictability of weather and sky, the day giving over to darkness, the moon rising, stars appearing one by one. The experience of an unfathomable wild place strikes the same chord within; the human heart responds to this wildness, wherever we find it.
I've always loved books where a setting is as strongly felt as a character. In subtle ways, characters deepen as the settings around them become clearer; to create a sense of place not only helps a reader to climb into the pages of a book but also helps to illuminate the characters who inhabit that place.
Q. Alice struggles with men and romance, and there is a marked disconnect between the different worlds of men and women in this novel. Did you consciously want to explore ideas about marriage and relations between the sexes when you wrote the book?
I didn't consciously set out to explore this terrain. Alice and Isaac led me into their individual stories, and not surprising, their stories ended up in territory that interests me.
Relationships often feel inexplicable to me, whether they're between men and women, men and men, or women and women. Why does love flourish between two people? Why does it die? I can make up complicated reasons for why things happen as they do, but I don't trust that I really know.
In my personal life, I was married for twenty-eight years before my marriage collapsed. During a second relationship, which lasted seven years ( and ended unexpectedly during the writing of this book), I thought I'd figured out how and why love endures. But it turned out I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I've been humbled, saddened, surprised and enriched by this side of my life. My experience, while distinct from Alice's, is reflected in her story.
Alice experiences four quite different relationships with men in the book: Lawrence, Hasse, Isaac, and Ian. At one point, I thought that Alice and Isaac would have a different relationship than they do, but it felt right that it ended up where it did. As the story unfolded, I hoped that Alice's sense of herself would be rooted in something beyond her relationship with the men in her life, but this was not an easy thing for her.
During the 1970s, in the decade when this book was set, male and female roles were shifting like Kalahari sand. Men still tended to be more immersed in careers than women, but well-educated women were also insisting on challenging careers—and not necessarily the traditional careers women had been funneled toward in the past. In some rather inarticulate part of herself, Alice feels she's failed for not taking her professional life further than she has. Neither Lawrence nor Ian is plagued with that sort of regret.
The role of sexuality in men's and women's lives was changing just as rapidly. AIDS had not surfaced, birth control was easy to procure—and while not a mainstream practice, open marriage felt like a possibility to some. It was a fascinating, bewildering, rapidly evolving time for relationships. As the story unfolded, I wanted to capture some of this confusion and unrest.
Q. What made you tell this story from varying points of view?
A multiple close-in third-person point of view let me gain a closer perspective than I could have had with a different kind of narration. Alice's voice, which was the first to come to me, started out in first person. Isaac began in third person. I wrestled with that difference for a while. There are books that combine first and third person, but I didn't think it would work for this book.
Alice has the most chapters, then Isaac, then Ian. In addition to the three main characters, there are six other characters (including White Dog) who have a chapter or portions of a chapter.
I ended up choosing third person over multiple first-person point of view for three reasons. First, I'm often able to draw closer to characters in third person than first. Second, I felt third person would give the story a greater sense of unity.
The third reason is more complicated and has to do with Isaac. First person felt like a leap I couldn't make— and at some level didn't want to make. I was already crossing the boundaries of gender, race and culture and asking myself, What right do you have, as a white woman, to tell Isaac's story? Third person felt like something I could manage; first person, somehow, didn't.
To say a little more about this business of our " right" to cross those boundaries in order to tell someone else's story, what I came to ( with the help of a writer friend) is the necessity as humans— whether we're writers or not— to imagine our way into the lives of people who are not ourselves. It's finally the imagination that lays the foundation for our individual and collective moral compass. A leader of the free world is less likely to wage war if he or she can imagine the pain, on both sides, of losing a loved one in battle. We can't help but imagine imperfectly, but we're better off trying.
Q. There is a fair bit of religious and spiritual contemplation in this novel: man's place in the universe; the role of God on earth; the role of chance; death. What was your attraction to writing about this?
I'm drawn to make sense of what I don't understand, as many people are: death, our connection to the larger cosmos, the nature of suffering and of evil. I didn't grow up immersed in a strong religious tradition, but I was fortunate to have parents who asked the larger questions and encouraged me to question what I didn't understand.
Even though I have never been religious in any conventional sense, I do have respect for the humane philosophical tenets at the core of many world religions. I'd like to think that these tenets were meant to lay the foundation for people to lead more mindful lives and to care better for their neighbors. That the world is full of examples of religion-as-battering-ram does not negate those original intentions.
In the book, characters struggle with questions that are beyond them, just as I hope that readers will wrestle with these same imponderables. Isaac, who was a religious man at the beginning of the book, witnesses the murder of a friend and suffers an extended period of imprisonment and torture that shakes him to the core. His crisis of faith—the question of why a God with dominion over all would allow innocent beings to suffer and die as they do—is not resolved by the end of the book. I didn't want the book to offer easy answers to questions that aren't easy.
Among !Kung Bushmen, death has a different meaning than it does for Europeans. Within a cosmology that connects living people with ancestors, and with sky and wind and clouds and water, death is a return to a state of oneness. Ian, a British man, is drawn to this belief system in which every living creature, down to the smallest, has a place in the sun. I hoped, in making certain aspects of Bushmen thought available to readers, to open up the possibilities for how we think about ourselves in relation to the larger world, and also to the communities where we live.
Q. In a hospital scene at t the end of the novel, Isaac speaks about feeling numb inside. " If he knew he'd be like this forever, he'd find a way to die. This was not life, what was inside him" ( p. 350). Is this a hopeful or despairing ending for Isaac?
Isaac is not a person who gives up easily. He has dreamt of living a life beyond the ordinary, a dream that may still be buried alive in him somewhere. He's been stripped of nearly everything he holds dear, he feels utterly numb and defeated. But in the last scene as he's walking toward the Old Village, he finds in his pocket a small, pale seed that he thought had been lost. Before I wrote that scene, I didn't know that he'd find that seed, but I think it mattered that he did.
Isaac will never be the same man he was before he went to prison, but I do believe that he'll find his way back, at least partway, from that living death.
Q. Do you see much of yourself in Alice?
Yes, I can see aspects of myself in all three major characters—Alice, Isaac and Ian. Alice isn't me, and her story isn't the story of my years in Botswana, but there are certain traits in her that I do recognize in myself. Her discomfort with having people working for her as gardeners and housemaids, for instance, was something I remembered from my time in the country. Her curiosity and eagerness to experience new things. Her resistance to facing unpleasant truths.
People often say that characters in dreams carry aspects of ourselves. Certainly, fictional characters do as well. To write convincingly and deeply from the point of view of a character, you need to be inside that person, and getting inside means drawing on your own psychic material in order to experience a world through other eyes. The act of imagining my way into the heart of these characters created strong bonds, bonds that are unbroken even now.
I was most aware of drawing from my own experience when I was writing scenes that had strong emotional content. When I knew Alice had lost a person she loved deeply (for people who haven't finished the book, I won't be more specific) , I dreaded writing the scene because I knew the only route to getting it down was to revisit my own experiences of crushing loss.
So when I see myself in Alice, the connection is largely an emotional one, forged through our shared experience: what it's like to lose someone, what it's like to miss home, what it's like to feel the first wild bloom of love.
Q. What does the White Dog mean to you?
During 2006, I lived in northern India for six months near the foothills of the Himalayas. While there, I met a dog named Blondie. I have never fallen for an animal the way I fell for Blondie. She was owned by a young Tibetan who was studying to become a thangka painter. Blondie adored him and was fiercely loyal, even though he mostly ignored her. If she'd been a human being, she might have been filled with resentment or anger, or she might have tried to manipulate her way toward what she wanted. But Blondie simply loved this man and was overjoyed to see him when he appeared. I remember the sight of her plumed tail as she set off down the road in the mornings. There was a staggering reservoir of hope and optimism in her. She ended up being adopted by an Indian family who liked dogs, but really she wasn't anybody's dog.
I treasure the nonhuman creatures I've come to know in my life and find it helpful to connect with beings who don't experience the world as I do. I think of my daughter's fish, Other Guy, who used to peer out at us through his tank in the kitchen. I think of a group of crows who light in the trees near my house and call to each other in a language I don't understand. And I think of White Dog, whose devotion is pure and selfless. Given the messes that we humans are capable of making, it's a relief to spend time in the company of a good dog. In my mind, she doesn't "stand" for anything. She stands for herself.
Q. What are you working on now?
I'm gathering ideas for the next novel, which is still at a very early stage. A couple of characters are in my head, and a few images, but I haven't got my arms around the story yet. It takes me awhile to get a book going. It needs to matter enough before I take the plunge for the next three years—or however long it takes before I come out the other side.