An extraordinary novel of love, friendship, and betrayal for admirers of Abraham Verghese and Edwidge Danticat
Eleanor Morse’s rich and intimate portrait of Botswana, and of three people whose intertwined lives are at once tragic and remarkable, is an absorbing and deeply moving story.
In apartheid South Africa in 1976, medical student Isaac Muthethe is forced to flee his country after witnessing a friend murdered by white members of the South African Defense Force. He is smuggled into Botswana, where he is hired as a gardener by a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, who has abandoned her Ph.D. studies to follow her husband to Africa. When Isaac goes missing and Alice goes searching for him, what she finds will change her life and inextricably bind her to this sunburned, beautiful land.
Like the African terrain that Alice loves, Morse’s novel is alternately austere and lush, spare and lyrical. She is a writer of great and wide-ranging gifts.
Eleanor Morse is the author of Margreete's Harbor, the most recent of four novels. White Dog Fell from the Sky was a Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week; An Unexpected Forest won the 2008 Independent Book Publisher's Award for best regional fiction and the 2008 Maine Literary Award. She is on the faculty of Spalding University's School of Creative and Professional Writing and lives on a small island off the coast of Maine.
No spoilers here, folks. I'll leave that to the blurters among us.
In the late 1970s, two African countries that share a border had radically different racial policies. The South African government was still allowing unspeakable atrocities in the name of apartheid. In contrast, Botswana had a black president married to a white woman, and its people were seeking racial harmony.
This cross-border contrast is central to the story, but it's only one of the themes Eleanor Morse covers in this strongly character-based novel. Along with racial tensions, she explores the natural history and anthropology of Botswana, as well as environmental degradation and other factors driving the extinction of the San (Bushman) people. There's even a little eco-sabotage performed by Ian Henry, fence-cutter extraordinaire, with the noble goal of saving the wildlife of the Okavango Delta.
The core of the novel is the unlikely friendship that develops between a white woman and a black man. Isaac Muthethe is a South African refugee who entered Botswana illegally, fearing death or worse if he remained in South Africa. An ill-considered marriage brought Alice Mendelssohn from America to Gaborone, Botswana, where she lives with her regrets among her expat friends. She hires Isaac as a gardener out of kindness rather than need.
At first it appears that Alice is the giver and Isaac the receiver, but in the process of saving Isaac and caring for those he loves, Alice is herself rescued from the grief of losses old and new. Tending to the immediate needs of those who are helpless brings out Alice's true nature, which is that of a nurturer. She allows Isaac to maintain his dignity while he accepts her largesse. As they ease each other's suffering, they broaden the definition of "family" in a profoundly moving way.
Eleanor Morse's prose is flexible. It can be stark when the subject is hatred and brutality, yet lyrical when discussing matters of the heart or describing the behavior of birds and migration of butterflies. I was especially impressed by the way she weaves in all the elements that illustrate the complexity of the world she re-creates. She gives us a political context, as well as historical, environmental, and cultural markers.
I wept as I read the closing pages of the novel, and my tears were both sorrowful and hopeful. I wept for all that was taken from Isaac and the way it changed him, but his insistence on autonomy and dignity made me believe he still has what it takes to build a new future.
And what of White Dog? After all Isaac has suffered at the hands of men, she seems to be as close as he can come to believing in a god. She is his ineffable, ever-present solace.
Every now and then, someone asks me, “Why do I read?” My answer is because of books like this – a book that embraces me in its world, shattering my heart and then restoring it again.
The first character we meet is Isaac Muthethe, a young medical student who was forced to flee South Africa for Botswana after witnessing his friend’s death by the white South African Defense Force. Upon arriving there, he is quickly “adopted” by a skinny white dog. Fate brings him – and the dog -- to the home of Alice Mendelssohn, who works for the Botswana government and whose marriage is quickly disintegrating, where he assumes the role of her gardener.
The characters, who fall into an unlikely friendship, are superbly drawn: Isaac, a serious man who never relinquishes his dignity and Alice, who falls deeply in love with a hard-to-tame man named Ian who opens the door to emotions she felt she no longer possessed. When Alice returns from an intense weekend with Ian, she finds that Isaac is missing… and the story develops into unchartered territory.
The theme, again and again, circles back to our place in the universe and how little we know. “We are doorways, openings into something greater than ourselves, something that we don’t understand and will never understand. We have nothing precious in and of ourselves. We are only precious in that we are part of something that is too big to know,” Isaac reflects, early on.
And Ian, Alice’s soul-mate, later reflects on the same thing when he view paintings from the !KungSan: “Whether you believe in God or not, the artists understood that they weren’t at the center of the universe, that humans are a small part, surrounded by the power and beauty of the whole.”
All of these imperfect individuals – all in the process of growth – are connected to each other and to White Dog, who represents – I believe – a spiritual guardian who watches over them. “White Dog would not leave his side. She knew his grief, this dog, who was more than a dog, this dog who had fallen from the sky.”
This book succeeds in the best of ways: revealing what it means to be human, how the power of love and loyalty triumphs over hatred and discord. It also succeeds as a window into Botswana and as a revelation of our broader connection to the entire animal universe, and the fences we build (literally and figuratively) to keep others at a distance. It’s one of the best I’ve read so far this year.
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.
If I could, I'd give this book six stars. Or seven. To set it apart from all the others. Personally, this book had all the elements I look for in a good read. It was well written and utterly lyrical in places, it had a bit of history, a bit of romance, a bit of mischief making, and it had an important story to tell; both about racism, and about preservation of culture and wildlife. I loved the characters, I laughed, I cried, I was scared and anxious, I was heartbroken, I was relieved. I felt the heat, I tasted the dust. I cheered on the good guys and cursed a world that blindly harbors such injustice. I'm sure that in analysis, this book is much more than that, with underlying themes and structure that give it significance. I've always wanted to write a book, and this is the one I wish I'd written.
This book was in some way a disappointment, as I was expecting a story turning around the apartheid or even the life of a South African refugee in Botswana. At the end, over a third of the book was dedicated to the romantic relationship between an American and British expat, a story that I found completely uninterested and which seemed to me as way to just put more pages into the book. The main character of the story (or so I supposed when I started reading the book), Isaac Muthethe could have been a little better developed but alas, he was seen just at the beginning and at the end of the story. It took me over three weeks to finish this book, an indication of how interesting I found the book.
3.5 Issac, a young black man flees for his life from apartheid South Africa, after witnessing a friends' murder. He seeks shelter in Botswana. and takes a position as far from his previous educated one of a medical student and meets a white woman who works for the land development branch of the government. This books is extremely well written, alternately beautiful when describing the country and horrible, when describing more inhuman acts that man continually perpetuates on others. The dog of the story is one that adopted Isaac when he gets to Bostwana.
Alice, the white woman is married at the beginning of the book and I really have no idea why he was introduced because he leaves and plays no other part. Alice herself is a somewhat stereotypical white do gooder who does put herself out for Isaac, but her affair with Ian I really did not like nor did I like his character very much. Isaac, who was the most interesting is not developed as much as I would have liked him to be. Yet, this book is very readable and I love learning about places and cultures I have not read very much about. I actually downloaded the E-book of Mandela, which I hope to read soon as he is man that I admire very much. When I saw this book, I thought it would provide more background on apartheid and what it did to the country and its people.
This one was a solid 3 stars for me. First, I loved the title. It isn't what the story is about, but I liked the way the title was plucked from the story.
This one is set in the 1970's in apartheid South Africa. The story was sad and tragic, but it was also heartwarming in places. I liked the characters and their journey. I also enjoyed the cultural part.
At times, the dialogue didn't quite ring true. Even though our characters are mostly adults, the conversations often sounded very "teen". Sometimes it was also very nonchalant, even when it came to close relationships.
I listened to the audio and the narrator did a fantastic job with all of the different accents. Well done. So 3 stars for this one.
White Dog Fell From the Sky By Eleanor Morse 5 stars pp. 354
You can blow out a candle But you can't blow out a fire Once the flames begin to catch The wind will blow it higher Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja - The man is dead
And the eyes of the world are watching now watching now
PETER GABRIEL - BIKO LYRICS
Morning Star shone brightly between night and day, brighter than before because he knew he had to stay vigilant against the forces of darkness in the universe. ~ Eleanor Morse ~ White Dog Fell From the Sky
South Africa in 1976 was a dystopian world and in Eleanor Morse’s book White Dog Fell From the Sky we are introduced to Isaac Muthethe, a young medical student who is fleeing South Africa to save his life. Stephen Biko has been killed as well as Isaac’s friend Kopano. Isaac lands in the middle of the road in Botswana, with a strange white dog following him and becoming his friend for life as dogs are want to do. Wandering down the road he meets Amen, an old mate from South Africa who is a member of the ANC (African National Congress). Here Eleanor Morse shows her ability to quickly craft a character:
Amen gestured for Isaac to sit down on the stoop. At first he said nothing, then “What happened?” “What do you mean?” To Kopano. I want to know the whole story. And what you’re doing here.” One did not trifle with Amen, not years ago when he was thirteen or fourteen back in school, less so now. His wide-set eyes were intense, passionate, but something else was there too---an ancient injury living side by side with an easy arrogance. Menace, the child of this union.
Shortly thereafter, Isaac meets and becomes a gardener for a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn. White Dog Fell From the Sky is the story of how there lives interweave in a brutal stark story of two people and two countries Botswana, the country of great promise which welcomes all people and all races and yet needs to resolve issues of environment and indigenous people and South Africa which still holds to the brutal and rigid apartheid.
Eleanor Morse’s prose can be beautiful but the tone can be like a sedative and the most tragic moments can leave you oddly sedated. I think this is purposeful , which I understood at the end. Going through trying times we often suppress emotion, become anesthetized.
I, myself would have liked Isaac to have stood out a bit more and our antiheroine, Alice, to have been a bit less heroic. I think it is an important story and it left me a bit agonized so I was kind in the rating.
There were some lovely and interesting parts of this book, mainly in the descriptions of the landscape, culture and politics of newly independent Botswana. I also enjoyed the ending very much. But it's not a book I'd recommend. I'm glad to be done with it and did think about giving up on it a third of the way through. I find it so hard to do. Though the characters were mostly well-drawn, complex and believable, somehow I never believed in the relationships between them. Often I didn't find the dialogue to be credible, especially in the new central relationship that emerges halfway through, and I was completely unmoved by the various moments of tragedy and despair. I thought the book would have been much improved with some further editing - I hardly ever felt like I needed to worry at all if I missed some words here and there. In fact I was quite impatient with it at times. Lastly, I didn't love the audiobook recording, though I think the reader is not the same as the one who's listed on this edition. It wasn't terribly engaging, and the accents weren't right. It's hard to do accents, I know, but why not just read the characters in a normal voice rather than attempt some weird concoction that just grates? I guess I should have given up on the book and found something I enjoyed more, but I'm not unhappy to have spent some time with these characters in this landscape.
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read! It is an incredible story about love, respect, integrity, loyalty and hope. It takes place in the late 1970's in the country of Botswana during the Apartheid period. One of the main characters, Alice, is a white American woman who came to Botswana with her husband. Her counterpart, Isaac, is a highly intelligent, black man who escaped from the horrors and atrocities of racial prejudice in South Africa. An amazing white dog "adopted" Isaac as soon as he arrived in Botswana and became an integral force in the book.
This is not a "love" story between Alice and Isaac. They are not a "couple." But, the book demonstrates a powerful feeling and understanding that occurred between them as a result of events that were beyond their control.
Eleanor Morse's writing style is almost poetic. She paints a beautiful picture with her words that carries one away to another time and place. It captivates your senses and holds your attention. When I was about halfway through the book, I found myself dreading the end of the book because it was so beautifully written.
White Dog Fell from the Sky is not an apt title for Morse's heart felt novel about Alice, a white American living in Botswana and Isaac, a South African who has arrived in Botswana in a hearse. underneath a coffin.
Isaac, a medical student, forced to flee Johannesburg , finds employment as a gardener just as Alice's marriage is ending. This is a love story, but no, not between Isaac and Alice.
Alice has left Cincinnati and married her boy friend who had moved to Botswana . Though the novel fills in a some details about Alice's relationship with her mother, there are few details about why Alice, a PhD student, left the USA. She is at a crossroads in her own life and she just decides that she needs a garden. She kicks her disinterested and philandering husband out and adopts Isaac as her gardener though he has no experience. White Dog seems to have adopted Isaac, also, for no reason.
Alice, who does not wish to be called "Madame " is unusually independent . Of course she bares no prejudices and treats Isaac as an equal. She also accepts kittens which Isaac saves from drowning and Isaac's young siblings. Alice is a remarkable character because she just does. There seems to be no calculations on her part. Although Morse's writing can be beautiful, skillful, I am confused by Alice.
Alice goes to great lengths to save Isaac and care for his family yet, she barely knows him. She is able to live in her house,support her maid and her child, Isaac's sister and brother, and work . Alice's reaction to the children's head lice is the most realistic part of Alice. Even children in private schools in NY get them and there seems to be no way to get rid of them, other than using the lice shampoo and "nitpick comb". As Alice finds, it is an arduous task which can not be put off.
Isaac's incarceration also rings true. Sadly, it reminds me of the horrors I read about in Abu Ghraib. I can not understand why prison guards reduce themselves to criminals against humanity, but the Nazis did, the Japanese did, the South Africans did and so did Americans. Works of fiction, like Room, the Tatoo books, Khaled Hosseni's The Kite Runner, and even The Hunger Game Trilogy describe man's unthinkable acts of terror. Isaac' s body and spirit are broken by the beatings , lack of food, living conditions which are worse than those provided for animals awaiting slaughter. . What bothers me most is that the dog, and Isaac both seem to fall from the sky. White Dog just attached himself to Isaac who had no food and no interest in acquiring a dog. Alice took in Isaac for no particular reason and is totally loyal to him. Why?
I read this book quickly and was definitely caught up in Alice's personal traumas, and Isaac's integrity , skill and his heinous debasement, and the turmoil of South Africa as it fell into a civil war. Yet, I was confused. Maybe it is the damned "dog". I can't figure out her loyalty, her metaphor and her place in the title.
Read this novel, not because of White Dog's loyalty, but because, and now I'm paraphrasing my friend,Steve and his rules: the characters are interesting, the details about South Africa and it's Civil War are spot on, the structure is interesting; the stories move back and forth because, Alice and Isaac live in two different worlds, and there is great skill in the writing. I'm always a skeptic and found Alice's character implausible, not because she couldn't have been so caring, but something just didn't ring true. Therefore I give it four stars and hope that some can explain the dog to me.
Bad things happening to good people. Good writing, compelling story. But sad. You have to be in the mood for sad--love found and lost, political repression, torture.This is not Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana. It reminded me more of the writing from Latin America in the 1970s, 1980s.
Interesting metaphor/symbolism in the veterinary fences across Botswana--senseless suffering. Simple goals, politically, crashing into a murderous force.
It is rare that I read a book over a couple of days (besides having a busy travel weekend). This novel is impossible to put down or to let the story of the main characters slip from your mind. Review to follow shortly.
Isaac Muthethe is one of the most memorable characters I’ve met in recent novels. An escapee from South Africa into neighboring and more liberal Botswana in the mid-1970s, he brings with him hope for a life free of fear, a wisdom earned in the harsh realities of apartheid, a willingness to work hard, and the wish to avoid political conflict. He also desperately wants to save the family members he had to leave behind.
When he is dumped from the vehicle carrying him across the border, a stray white dog approaches him, as if she had fallen from the sky. White Dog becomes Isaac’s companion, even guardian; she had “a patience in her that only wise beings possess.” Isaac, without papers in a strange land, certainly needs a friend.
Man and dog soon have two significant encounters in Botswana: the first with a former schoolmate, Amen, a guerilla with the African National Congress fighting against apartheid in South Africa, who offers Isaac a bed, and the second with Alice, an American who hires Isaac as her gardener. The next few months in Isaac’s life will be changed quite drastically because of these two connections -- for better and for worse.
Author Morse weaves a very moving story as we witness Isaac’s struggle to keep a low profile and Alice’s romantic ups and downs. In Isaac’s story we learn about the political strife across the Botswana-South Africa border; Morse has a talent for portraying the torture rampant in South African prisons, especially the excruciating effects on the mind and spirit. And in Alice’s tale we read about efforts to protect livestock, wildlife herds, and the San people in Botswana; descriptions of the disastrous results when veterinary fences meant to keep wildlife from infecting cattle actually deny them water sources were harrowing.
There were heartbreaking aspects to “White Dog Fell from the Sky,” absolutely, but kindness and caring abound too. I especially relished the wisdom in this novel, much of it from Isaac, whose life is truly tested. One of my favorites from him (particularly appealing to me as a former English teacher):
“He remembered in secondary school ... an English teacher had said that when you write, you should be sparing of exclamation points. This was good advice, not only for writing but for life itself. It was best to let commas and periods carry you.” Wow.
Though if I were to rank books with punctuation marks, I would definitely award this an exclamation point.
Lovely and devastating. This novel touches on many things, but the main thread is about the evils of apartheid and considering any living creature “less than.” While the focus is obviously on South African apartheid, and the direct impact that has on one of the two main characters, the neighboring Botswana is not immune from criticism and the author draws subtle comparisons to its treatment of the San people and its treatment of the wildlife under its care. Still, there is a lot of love for Botswana in this book, for its wildlife and its people and for those who choose to live there and love it. A difficult but wonderful read.
I thought this book was trying to do too many things. A love story? A social commentary? A review of apartheid? Isaac's story was strong enough to make a book; the various romances of Alice just lost my interest and I felt disinterested in what was happening.
So, I don't usually look at reviews once I pick a book up but for some reason I did and saw many of my GR friends giving it 2 and 3 stars. I saw them describe why their expectations were unmet or reduced.
Then I saw this review -Calzean rated it it was ok Shelves: woman-author, author-usa, culture-southafrica, culture-botswana I thought this book was trying to do too many things. A love story? A social commentary? A review of apartheid? Isaac's story was strong enough to make a book; the various romances of Alice just lost my interest and I felt disinterested in what was happening.
This seems to be in line with the consensus among my GR buddies. I am going to DNF at 40 pages but not award stars because I was looking for a historical based fiction read and not a book on the affairs of a white woman, which are abounding in today's publishing world. It isn't my cup of honeybush tea.
A young medical student escapes from South Africa after witnessing a murder and tries to make a new life for himself in Botswana. He is hired as a gardener by an American woman, but their lives are soon turned upside down. This was an eloquent, haunting book. A bit slow at first, but by the end, I was totally engrossed in this beautiful novel. 4 1/2 stars.
I read this book ten years after it was published, and I am grateful it somehow came on my radar (thank you , whichever Goodreads friend made that happen). This character driven novel is full of LOVE and hope in the face of dreariness and desperation.
I have book shelf where I keep my "keeper" books about Africa, both fiction and non-fiction. Some have been with me for a long time, as Africa has long been a passion and an itch that other than a two week tour of Tunisia pre-Arab Spring, I've not scratched. And I am a big fan of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (especially in audio), a series that had me doing Google searches on Botswana and becoming captivated by the country - a stable, African democracy. So when I saw that Eleanor Morse was doing the kickoff for this book - a book about Africa, in particular Botswana - at Longfellow's Books in Portland, Maine while I was in town, I made it a priority to attend. I was not disappointed. Morse was a good speaker - she explained how she came to leave in Botswana during the 1970's and what it was like. I was captivated. But for some reason, I put the book on the shelf and never got around to reading it until now -- exactly six years later. The book did not disappoint.
The book opens with the first of the three main characters Isaac wondering if he is dead or alive and what country he is in. Isaac, a black medical student, was standing beside his best friend when two South African police officers throw his friend onto the train tracks and despite Isaac's pleas, the conductor ran over him. Isaac ran. His brother found a way to get him out of South Africa to Botswana. Isaac was crammed into a small space underneath the casket of a Botswanian who was being transported home for burial. Isaac was the bright star in his family's universe. His mother and his older brother worked hard so he could go to school. His mother's employer - a liberal South African - helped. Isaac dreamed of being able to put his younger siblings through school.
Isaac gets a job as a gardener for Alice (our second main character) - a white woman from the US working for the Botswanian government. At her boyfriend's request, Alice came to Botswana one summer during graduate school, ended up marrying the boyfriend, but now the marriage is failing. She frightens Isaac by insisting he not call her madam and that he build her a creative garden but giving him no direction on what she wants, other than that it not be square and that he plant some hot peppers. The book mostly moves back and forth between Alice and Isaac but others pop in from time-to-time with their perspective (something that I did not particularly like).
Alice goes on a life-changing work trip and asks Isaac to stay at the house while she is gone. But Isaac gets arrested and deported and ends up in prison. Before this happened, however, Isaac had asked his mother to send his young siblings to live with him in Botswana and, with the help of her employer, his mother does this. When Alice returns from the trip, Isaac is gone. She eventually manages to find out that he was deported. Her life is then upended but not, initially, as a result of Isaac. Then Isaac's siblings arrive and at least this upending helps her deal with the first upending. I would like to meet Alice. She is a strong woman who thinks for herself. She is far from perfect but is someone I would like to have as a friend.
So who is the third main character? It is the white dog that fell from the sky. She is a pillar of love and solidarity for Isaac, for Alice, and for Isaac's siblings. Where she came from to appear at Isaac's side when in Chapter 1 of the book is never explained but she is always present thereafter.
The author paints wonderful word pictures of Botswana and its peoples. She shows the horror of apartheid in South Africa and provides a view of the very different race relations in Botswana. She allows you to see and interpret this story on your own. There is little preaching (limited to the bad decision to build fences that prevent the animals to migrate across Southern Africa to find water). This is a highly recommended story for anyone who wants to know more about Africa, Botswana, or South Africa.
White Dog Fell From the Sky is bound to be one of the ten best books I've read this year. It is an ode to love, tenacity, and an homage to the indigenous people of Botswana.
The novel has two story lines, both taking place in 1976. The first is that of Isaac Muthethe, a young South African man who is in his first year of medical school when his good friend, an apartheid activist, is killed by the South African police. Isaac witnesses this and knows that his own life is in danger and so he escapes to Botswana illegally and without papers. As soon as he crosses the border, carried on a truck underneath a coffin, he is befriended by a white dog. He also runs into an old school friend named Amen who is deeply entrenched in activities against South Africa. He manages to get a place to stay in Amen's small house. He is able to find work as a gardener for Alice Mendelssohn.
The second story line is about Alice, a woman who left the United States and her unfinished doctorate in anthropology to marry her fiancé who is in Botswana. The marriage is shaky pretty much from the start and it ends shortly after the book begins. Alice is working at a job that does not make use of her skills in anthropology. However, she is given the opportunity to go on a research trip with anthropologists and it is there that she meets Ian, an anthropologist fifteen years her senior, who she feels is her soul mate and the love of her life. He is working on a project about the art of the San people, an indigenous group in Botswana. Alice is a generous soul, a gentle but assertive woman who wants more from life than she is currently getting. She feels she can attain this through her relationship with Ian.
Alice and Isaac interact, at first, very formally but their communications warm up. Alice cares deeply about Isaac's well-being and even pays him extra money to send home for his family. Unfortunately, Isaac disappears and Alice does everything in her power to find him. While this is going on, White Dog stays in the same place in Alice's yard, awaiting the return of Isaac. What is the meaning of White Dog. The title says he fell from the sky and I began to think of him as a piece of universal light and goodness, a loyal and stalwart being, perhaps even an angel.
The book is masterfully written with a riveting narrative that grasps the reader from the beginning. It is definitely anti-apartheid and shows the horrific situations that Africans undergo under the South African regime. It also is a book that honors the wildlife that are perishing daily due to rules and regulations that prevent them from accessing food and water. It also pays respect to the San people, an indigenous group known for their art and healing powers.
If you have any chance, do read this book. It affected me deeply and left me with many questions that I intend to follow up. It is a beautiful novel, one that might even leave you in tears.
The whole time I was reading this novel now in 2023, I thought it sounded so familiar, but when looking through my book journal and other information on books that I had read, I hadn't seen any record of it. When I came to Goodreads, it turned out that I had written this review back in 2016 and gave it a 5/5. This time I liked it but I might give the book a 4 partly because I didn't care as much for the love story between Alice and Ian. I guess I will give it a 4.5.
This novel takes place in Botswana in 1976, the year I graduated from high school in East Africa. It involves a South African medical student who was fleeing the apartheid regime in neighboring South Africa, an American woman who worked for the Botswana government and is going through a divorce, and an older British man named Ian that she falls in love with after her divorce. The 'White Dog' looked after Isaac as he ends up in Botswana and starts working for Alice. This book brings out the politics of this region during that time very well, gives a strong sense of place for Botswana (similar to the #1 Ladies Detective series) and brings out each characters rich and conflicting emotional life fully. A thoughtful and satisfying read.
I give this 5 stars, despite the narrator who isn't nearly good enough--multiple mispronunciations, bad accents. She has a lovely voice and her African accents, for black and white characters, sound authentic, but the mistakes took me out of the story. That said, this is a powerful story filled with richly realized characters and provocative social issues that reflect both Apartheid and ecological problems. The language is, as Publisher's Weekly writes, "brutal and beautiful." There's a cadence to the voices and to life in Botswana in the 70s, when this takes place, and wonderful descriptions of the landscape, even places that are dreamed of but never seen, like the ancient paintings by the San people. It's a story of unlikely friendships--American Alice Mendelssohn who works for the government and her Black gardener Isaac Muthethe, who had been a medical student in South Africa before he escaped--and loyalty symbolized primarily by the white dog who adopts Isaac and patiently awaits his return when he is arrested and sent back to South Africa. A moving story, personal and political, haunting and memorable.
This is the story of two people in 1970s Botswana, a young man named Isaac and a woman named Alice. Isaac is black, forced to flee his native South Africa for fear of his life. Alice is white, in an unhappy marriage and trying to find meaning in life. Isaac comes to work for her as a gardener. For the first part of the book, I felt disconnected from the characters, unable to identify with their pain, especially Alice. She seemed too passive and self-absorbed, waiting for something to happen but not having any idea about what it might be or even able to identify it as a good or bad thing. Isaac was more likable, with his integrity and compassion for those around him.
But events push both of them into sad situations and inspire them to heroic levels. By the end of the book, I was deeply moved and involved in their situations (despite my husband's reminder that "It's just a book!"). This is a sad, troubled world. What makes some of us over-comers and others cruel, petty tyrants?
And for the animal lovers in the audience, there's a sweet, sweet dog in the story!
One sentence from the book says it all: "It's a fearful thing to love what death can touch." This book is like a lover's kiss which leaves you breathless. I could not put it down. It was like it was the only thing that could quench my thirst. I had to know what the next chapter would bring.
I knew at a high level what happened in South Africa during the Apartheid, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. This book has shared with me the humanity of this period. It helped me realise the fear, the pain and the torment that were part of the every day lives of South Africans.
Eleanor Morse brought Africa to life in a spectacular way. Her descriptions are harmonious and breath taking. It makes you want to go there and see for yourself the beauty of this landscape. She also deals with real subjects and brings to light the horror that mankind imposed on wildlife and the people of Africa.
The story was tender and raw at the same time. Beautiful book.
What made this a five-star-book was the unique setting: Botswana, the unique characters of Alice Mendleson and Isaac and the many supporting characters who advance the plot, and the beautfy of the writing including the symbolism of the white dog and the garden. Here is a sample of the style: "She left on a Saturday. That night, White Dog slept just outside the kitchen door For the first time in Isaac's life there was no other breath signing near him at night. So much stillness, it felt like the space between stars. In Pretoria, there were voices outside, radios, drunks, people arguing, singing, footsteps going by, and inside whisperings, snorings, murmurings of sleep. Now he felt he might be the last man on Earth. He got up and walked ooutside and looked up at the trunk of a syringa tree, into its boughs holding the sliver of a new moon." I couldn't put this book down.