White Dog Fell from the Sky is set in Botswana during the era of South African Apartheid. Isaac, a black South African, escapes to Botswana by hiding under a coffin; a demonstration of just how desperate he is to get away following the murder of his friend and the subsequent threat to his own life. Once in Botswana, Isaac meets an old friend who is now a part of the ANC’s defiance campaign; the main instance of resistance to black South Africans’ oppression in this deeply troubled time. Isaac, though, has ran away to try and find some kind of peace. He doesn’t wish to be tangled up in anything that might land him in the kind of trouble he has tried so hard to escape. Unfortunately, from the novel’s beginning, there is a sense of inevitability surrounding the lovable and loyal protagonist; the reader knows he will never be completely free of his difficulties.
For a while, though, our hope is revived. Isaac meets Alice, a white American on the lookout for a gardener. Despite his training at medical school and his obvious intelligence, Isaac happily accepts the job, recognising how much of an improvement it is when compared to anything he may have been offered at home. He takes to it, even enjoys it. And Alice takes to him. Going through her own difficulties, in a failing marriage, unable to have children, and miles away from everybody she knows, Alice is glad to have somebody such as Isaac around. Somebody to talk to; somebody to trust.
You may think you know where this is all going. But if there’s one word that best describes Morse’s novel, it would have to be ‘surprising.’ Every time you think you know just where the plot is driving, she switches it up. Whether it be a simple twist of good fortune that stands out in this bleak environment, or the sudden destruction and desolation that can be caused by something as simple as a herd of stampeding buffalo, Morse is more than adept at taking the reader’s emotions and ripping them to shreds. White Dog Fell from the Sky starts like so many other novels of its ilk, and so easily could’ve slipped into worn cliché. But it doesn’t. And that’s a credit to the writer’s imagination.
This originality seeps into the writing, too. At times, Morse writes beautifully, getting away with similes and metaphors that other authors might not have pulled off. She also switches voices in the novel with no attempt at regularity. Each main character will at times have their say, and sometimes we even switch to the perspective of more minor characters. Occasionally, even the dog of the title takes the lead. This all works to create an effect of a cast which is trying so hard to pull together, but is constantly separated by politics, oppression, nature, and, more than once, tragedy.
Any Cop?: On the surface, White Dog Fell from the Sky deals with themes and a period of history that have been dealt with often in literature. But in the telling, Morse separates her work from many of its predecessors. With the American character’s story holding equal sway with the oppressed South African’s, we see a mix of perspectives that make for an interesting, involving, and often deeply upsetting portrayal of Africa in a term of turmoil of the highest order. And the novel never comes close to being only an exotic travel through foreign lands, as many of the genre have before. It’s a deeply personal tale throughout, and all the better for it.