By Joe Tash
“White Dog Fell From the Sky” is a novel of stark contrasts — good and evil, black and white, hope and despair.
The novel, published by Viking in 2013, is the third by Eleanor Morse, a teacher and writer who lives on an island off the coast of Maine.
Morse was the featured speaker at the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society on May 22, held at The Grand Del Mar in Carmel Valley.
The novel tells the story of Isaac, a black South African medical student who must flee the country after his close friend is murdered by authorities. Isaac crosses the border into neighboring Botswana by hiding in a secret compartment in a hearse, beneath a coffin containing a dead body. He finds a job as a gardener with Alice, a white woman from America.
One thread binding the story together is White Dog, who appears at Isaac’s side after he is unceremoniously dumped out of the hearse at the side of the road.
“A thin white dog sat next to him, like a ghost. It frightened him when he turned his head and saw her. He was not expecting a dog, especially not a dog of that sort. Normally he would have chased a strange dog away. But there was no strength in his body. He could only lie on the ground. I am already dead, he thought, and this is my companion. When you die, you are given a brother or a sister for your journey, and this creature is white so it can be seen in the land of the dead,” Morse wrote in the book’s opening page.
In an interview before her talk, Morse said she didn’t set out to write the character of the dog as a symbol, but as the story progressed, White Dog took on more importance.
“She became a symbol of hope. A benign presence, a light in the darkness that Isaac experienced,” Morse said.
Along with the contrasts in the lives of blacks and whites, the book provides sharp relief in its portrayals of South Africa and Botswana, two very different countries, especially in the mid-1970s when the story is set. South Africa was then in the grip of apartheid, a cruel system of racial segregation that subjected the country’s majority black population to poverty and oppression.
Botswana was a fledgling democracy that had recently gained independence from England. The country had no standing army, which enabled it to spend money on schools, hospitals and social programs, Morse said. The book notes that Botswana was a multi-racial society whose black president was married to a white woman, and even the national flag, with its black stripe framed by a white lines, is meant to symbolize racial harmony. (The flag’s blue background symbolizes rainwater, a precious resource.)
“The two countries couldn’t have been more different,” Morse said. “(Botswana) was as enlightened as South Africa was a dark, dismal place to be.”
Morse lived in Botswana for four years, from 1972 to 1975, following her husband, whom she met in college in the U.S. Her husband had grown up in Botswana, and during the couple’s stay in the country, she worked in a position at a university, while he held a government post. The couple’s first child was born in Botswana.
Morse said her writing style involves creating characters who drive the story, rather than outlining the book’s plot at the outset.
“I listen carefully to my characters and do my best to tell their stories as they unfold,” Morse said. When bad things happen to her characters, Morse said, she is tempted to intervene and change the course of the story, but she resists such impulses.
“It wouldn’t have integrity if I tried to move the story to suit what I wanted to have happen,” she said.
Morse also teaches a graduate writing course by correspondence with students at Spalding University in Kentucky.
Meeting with local high school students, Morse advised them to find their own writing voices and pay attention to details around them, rather than focusing on getting published.
“However you write, whatever your story is, whatever your voice is, become more and more familiar with that,” she said.
At the May 22 meeting, the Literary Society honored five high school students as winners of the group’s annual writing contest: Anastasia Armendariz, 11th grade, Torrey Pines High School, first place; Anna Lee, 10th grade, Torrey Pines High School, first runner up; Jesse Giordano, 10th grade, Torrey Pines High School, second runner up; Jillian Haines, 12th grade, San Dieguito Academy, third runner up; and Elise Gout, 11th grade, San Dieguito Academy, fourth runner up.
The society will take its summer/fall hiatus and launch its 2014-15 season in November. For membership information, contact chapter leader Gayle Allen at (858) 824-1203, or firstname.lastname@example.org. The society is sponsored by Northern Trust, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center and the Rancho Santa Fe Review.