Botswana, 1976: Isaac Muthethe thinks he is dead. Smuggled across the border from South Africa in a hearse, he awakens covered in dust, staring at blue sky and the face of White Dog. Far from dead, he is, for the first time, in a country without apartheid. A medical student in South Africa, he was forced to flee after witnessing a friend murdered by white members of the South African Defense Force.
Walking along the road into Gaborone, Botswana's capital, White Dog following close behind, a chance encounter with an old school acquaintance changes the course of Isaac's life. Amen, a member of the ANC, the South African resistance movement, invites Isaac to stay with his family. Petrified of deportation and determined to find work, he swears he will stay just for a few days. He sets out to find work and is hired by a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, who is living in Botswana with her husband, Lawrence.
A year later, her marriage an empty shell, Alice sets off on a work-related trip to the vast bush that she loves-alternately austere and lush, with light that blinds-leaving her home in the care of her new gardener, Isaac. It is on this trip that she meets Ian, an expert on the Kung San and a rebellious, untamable man 20 years her senior, with whom she imagines a very different future.
Returning home, Alice finds Isaac missing and White Dog waiting loyally at the end of the drive, dehydrated and malnourished. When she goes in search of Isaac, what she finds out will change her life.
©2013 Eleanor Morse (P)2013 Tantor
"Morse's unflinching portrayals of extremes of loyalty and cruelty make for an especially memorable novel." (Publishers Weekly)
Have re-discovered "quality time." Evenings listening to good books have replaced mindless tv watching. What a difference!
This book brings the reader deep into Botswana (and at times, South Africa) in the 1970's, during the time of Apartheid. However, that is simply the framework for an astonishing tale that encompasses the heights and depths of the cruelty and alternately the sensitivity and tenderness of man and nature alike.
Arguably, the protagonist is Isaac Muthethe, who escapes from S. Africa after he has witnessed a politically caused murder and fears for his own life. But one could also make a case that it is the story of Alice--the woman who is transformed as she is forced to discover the depths and strengths of her own being throughout the book, as does Isaac.
However, as the title implies, perhaps the main character is White Dog, herself, who is the silent and loyal witness and companion to Isaac--who appears at his side as he emerges from a trip in a coffin across the border to reach a kind of freedom, and never loses faith that he will get through all the trials he faces.
White Dog is often a background figure--yet seems to represent, in her quiet way, the endurance and love that can exist in the world, despite unspeakable conditions. Why is she white--is it to show contrast with the hatred of the whites against the blacks at that time in South Africa? Is it a kind of purity? Is it to simply show her as possibly the only non-conflicted character in the story--one whose love is so true, who seems (to Isaac) to have fallen from the sky--that she represents the God--whom they often question and wrestle with, or the angels--some sort of love that goes beyond that which humans can create for themselves?
I would love to find out what the author felt as she created this touching little character--who holds the entire book together from beginning to end.
The story is one of contrasts--the beauty and cruelty of the land itself, along with the sadistic practices of Apartheid--yet moments of courageous people finding freedom, and even love under challenging conditions. It is the story of people who, in the midst of a life which can, at times, be brutal, are driven to find the deepest, and often the finest, parts of themselves.
This book is far from a sentimental excursion through Africa--it is told in a manner that brings up deep emotions in the reader (or at least in me). I wept through moments of it--but could immediately feel the sense of redemption in scenes where either nature or some of the characters showed tender, sensitive ability to care about another.
One of the most touching scenes in the book is where a character dies in a tragic manner, and a Bush woman (the !Kung San) who helps care for him at his end, names her baby for him--in the belief that the gods would not take two people with the same name at the same time. The simplicity of this belief, coupled with the reminder that Life does go on, was gripping to me.
It would take pages to truly write all that I felt about this book. But it was absolutely one of the most stunningly beautiful works I have read in some years. It deserves a place among some of the best works that will be long remembered. The author has the skill of writing the truth of the lives of men and beasts in a part of the world that does not take our usual comforts for granted. It is an unsentimental portrayal of people who are themselves transformed by their connections to each other--but also their connections to the country, the protection of the animals there, the awareness of the barbaric practices occurring due to Apartheid (which seemed to parallel some of the cruelty to the big animals of Africa). It is filled with wonder, with emotions that reach into oneself as the reader.
A word about the narrator. I have no way of knowing whether the many different tones and accents of several languages are accurate or not--but Carla Mercer-Meyer did an outstanding job of depicting them in such a way that seemed amazing to me. She slid back and forth from English to Afrikaans with apparent expertise. She also conveyed through her voice, the range of emotional experiences that the characters (and also the reader/listener) were feeling and going through with dexterity.
This is a not-to-be-missed piece of literature. I am only shocked that it was not one of the featured books on Audible's home page. I cannot recommend it highly enough--but with the caveat that it does not spare the reader with a look away from some of the harshest parts--but be assured that those seem always to be complemented by looks at the reaches of tenderness, love and loyalty that are often difficult to find in ourselves or in nature. I am now planning to find and read the other novels by Eleanor Morse.
Bravo! to such a magnificent author!
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