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Peaks Island writer tells South African tale

Peaks Island and South Africa might seem like they are worlds apart, but a new book, "White Dog Fell from the Sky," by Eleanor Morse, brings the far-away culture close to home.
Morse lives on Peaks Island and teaches a course in sudden fiction there. She has traveled extensively in Africa, living in Botswana for almost four years. But it was on Peaks Island that she created her new novel's main character, Isaac Muthethe, a medical student who flees South Africa after one of his friends is murdered.1-10-TG-white-dog-eleanorweb
"There are 10 or 12 people sitting around a living room," Morse said of her sudden fiction class. "I wasn't sure where the first chapter came from. I found it leafing through a notebook, so Isaac was born on Peak's Island. I felt responsible to tell his story."
This is Morse's third book, after "Chopin's Garden" and "An Unexpected Forest," but the first "big press book."
"I was really lucky. I have a wonderful agent in New York, Jane Gelfman. Her first pick for editor was Kathryn Court, president of Penguin," Morse said.
"The main thing she was interested in was tightening the narrative line in the middle of the book. It was a real 'listening-to-each-other' process."
Gelfman and Court read drafts of the work eventually, but Morse said that, for more than two decades, her first reader has been Kate Kennedy, director of the Southern Maine Writing Project.
"She's a close friend, and we've been each other's first readers for years," Morse said.
The novel is a heart-wrenching tale of a struggle too-often forgotten — apartheid South Africa and the brutality of its racist laws.
"White Dog Fell from the Sky" tells the story of Isaac, the medical student come gardener; Alice Mendelssohn, whose gardens he tends; and Ian Henry, the specialist in San rock paintings with whom Alice falls in love. But the strongest ties of love and mutual respect are bound between Alice and Isaac, in a melodic telling of unlikely harmony.
"Setswana is a beautiful language," Morse said. "I wasn't able to capture the music of the language, but I wanted the language there. It's so much a part of the sights and sounds there."
Morse used words and phrases from the foreign tongue, and then translated them for readers through smooth appositives. The result makes for a reading that is both exotic and immediate. And the story is one that, while set in another country, gives the reader a sense of immediacy and correlation.
"I left this country in 1972," Morse said of her journey to Africa. "What happened was that a man who was to become my husband grew up in Botswana. His parents were congregational missionaries in the 1940s. We met when he was in grad school and I was in college. He went back to Botswana. I finally decided to see if this man was in or out my life."
Morse and Andrew Seager had two children — a son named Alan who was born in Gaborone, Botswana in 1973, and a daughter named Catherine, who was born in Blue Hill, Maine, in 1980.
"We were engaged by transatlantic cable, and then returned there (Botswana) for almost four years," Morse said.
At the time, Gaborone, the new capital of Botswana, had been carved out of the bush, she said. Right after the country gained independence from England, Seager went back to run the first national elections. Shortly after that, in Botswana, there was a discovery of diamonds and copper nickel that put the country on a strong economic base. "There was no army to siphon off funds," Morse said. "So money went into education and healthcare."
Her experience there stayed with her, and now she has turned that into a compelling novel of love, loss and redemption.
Regarding the creation of her characters, Morse said, "Alice came to me when I was beginning another book, kind of a book that had to do with the Vietnam war, and people who returned from the war. Like some books, it didn't really take off, so I had the seed of Alice in my head."
She said she couldn't really tell where they third character came from. "I don't plan on a book the way some people do," she said. "Ian came about in a slightly less visceral way. I was very interested in Bushmen painting, while in Botswana. There was a lot of antagonism between ranchers and the people who live traditional lifestyles. I started doing research in Bushmen painting, and that's really where Ian came from. From the very start, he was the kind of guy who was a rapscallion. I wanted him to be a part of the wilderness that he loved. That made him not always fit for human society."
Morse admitted that Ian's character is less sympathetic that the other two, and she also concedes that a white American woman telling a black South African's story might yield come criticism.
"I was very sensitive in telling the story," she said. "Alice's first voice was first-person. But I felt the book would suffer disunity if her voice was first person and Isaac's was third. But it felt arrogant being a white woman telling a black man's story in first person, so they both became third-person characters."
Morse said she wanted to tell the story of that time and place, and most importantly, didn't want the black people in the book to come across as victims.
"Isaac, in my mind, has a lot of courage and intelligence and dignity," she said.
Morse uses a combination of actual African sayings and some of her own beliefs. She says she plans to return to Botswana with the son who was born there someday.
Her book contains powerful images — a sunken garden that Isaac tries to build for Alice, and the White Dog of the title.
"I lived in India for six months," Morse said, where she met a dog like White Dog named Blondie. "It was one of the most cheerful animals I met in my life, and belonged to a Tibetan man who was learning to be a Thankga painter. He pretty much ignored her, but she was loyal to him, and I loved her loyalty and hopefulness. I didn't set out to make White Dog a symbol, and was worried a little bit that White Dog was white and might be taken for something else, but White Dog is herself. If a symbol for anything, it's a symbol of loyalty and persistence."
White Dog has been brought to life, in a way, by Maine College of Art student Gaella Materne. She worked with Morse to create a papier mache version of the book's title character, on display in the window at Longfellow Books.
Materne, who is in the last year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, said it was the first time she has been involved in something like this.
"I thought it was a fantastic opportunity," she said. "When you're a senior, you want to get your name out there as much as possible."
Her plans for next year? "I'll probably just go ahead and do what I love, and see where it brings me. I'm crossing my fingers a little bit. That's the trick: like Eleanor, do what you love. She loves writing and she's good at it."

Eleanor Morse: "White Dog Fell from the Sky" is featured at Longfellow Books in Portland at 7 p.m. Friday.

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