Some novels percolate in their authors’ minds for years. In the case of Eleanor Morse’s superb third novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky, the brew-time was at least a dozen and possibly as many as 40 years.
“Alice came to me more than 12 years ago as part of another book that didn’t get off the ground,” Morse says during a call to her home on Peaks Island, a three-mile ferry ride across Casco Bay from Portland, Maine. Alice Mendelssohn, one of two central characters in the novel, is an American woman who has come to Botswana with her husband in the mid-1970s, shortly after the new African nation gained its independence from Great Britain. “My books are not plot driven,” Morse continues. “I count on the characters to drive the story, so I have to know who they are and what they are about before the story can really get going. And that requires a kind of patient listening to them.”
Isaac Muthethe, the novel’s other central character, was born in Morse’s mind some years later while she was teaching a fiction writing class. Isaac is a medical student who is forced to flee from South Africa to Botswana after he witnesses the shocking murder of a friend by white police officers. Isaac and Alice, both of whom feel profoundly displaced, develop an awkward acquaintanceship when she hires him to work as her gardener. Their friendship deepens dramatically when Isaac is mistakenly deported to South Africa and is imprisoned and tortured, accused of being an African National Congress terrorist, and Alice sets out to find him.
“It matters to me to write a book that has some significance to it,” Morse says. “I’ve felt over the years that this is something that needs to be written. I’ve been interested in people who have been displaced for some time. I think that’s connected to all the moving around we did when I was a child. I understand what it feels like not to belong to a place.”
"I wanted the setting to be something that embraced a reader throughout the book and was a constant companion."
Morse’s father worked for General Electric, and as a child she moved frequently around the Northeast and the Midwest. She has been writing fiction since she was very young, she says, but “didn’t feel very supported in that desire. I had no models in my family. When I hit about 40, I decided that no matter what else is going on in my life, I have to do this. That’s when I went back and got an M.F.A.”
Morse’s first novel, An Unexpected Forest (2007), won a Best Regional Fiction prize from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She now teaches fiction writing in the M.F.A. program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
While her characters Isaac and Alice may feel out of place, Morse’s descriptions of that place—the vast landscapes of Botswana—are specific and ravishing. “When I was going through the editing process there was some question about whether there was too much setting in the book. I argued strenuously for keeping as much setting as there is. Because like a character, it doesn’t just appear and then you forget about it. I wanted the setting to be something that embraced a reader throughout the book and was a constant companion.”
Morse was familiar with much of that landscape after living in Botswana from 1972 to 1975 as a newlywed. Her then-husband, the son of British missionaries, was born there and was serving as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture. The couple had two children. She found a job at the tri-country University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland as head of the adult education wing. She had a weekly radio program and ran a national education campaign that trained learning groups in remote parts of the country to run conversations on what it meant to be part of a government. “This was only six years into being an independent African country. It was fascinating work,” Morse recalls.
Little wonder then that White Dog Fell from the Sky touches on the politics of the era. But it’s a light touch. “I didn’t set out to write a political novel,” Morse says, “but it certainly has political aspects to it. I didn’t want to make it a polemical novel, and I was anxious to make the sections having to do with South Africa balanced. So there’s a white family [Isaac’s benefactors] who are not oppressors.
“There’s some remorse in me that I was not more political when I lived in Botswana. I was certainly aware of what was going on next door. Every time I went over the border I was stopped for 45 minutes or an hour because I had a radio program and I was teaching and I was an American. Those three things made me suspect in South Africa. So I experienced the regime, and I experienced white South Africans needing to justify how they were living. They couldn’t keep away from it. It just worried them. You could see it worried them.”
Within the political and natural landscape of the novel, Isaac and Alice—particularly Alice—struggle to become and remain fully human. “Alice is a seeker,” Morse says. “She wants to live a large life. She bumbles around some as she struggles to accept the discomforts around her and make something of them.”
Of her own challenges in writing her new novel, Morse says, “Once characters are born in me I have a responsibility to be as true to their story as I can be. From writing this book, I know that takes a certain amount of courage. It meant returning again and again to that place of deep imagining.”
Then, referencing William Faulkner’s Nobel address, she says, “I wanted to write about the human heart, its losses and joys, its separations and connections.”
A reader finishes White Dog Fell from the Sky believing Morse has accomplished exactly that.