Benjamin Komoetie could be considered the protagonist of the story, as the plot centers on his struggle to understand who he is and in which family he belongs. Benjamin is found on the doorstep of Fiela Komoetie at just three years old and raised as her "hand-child," or adoptive child, alongside her four other children. Though he is white and the others are black, he never questions the difference until the day men from the government come to take him away. He is erroneously brought to be Lukas van Rooyen, a child who went missing as a toddler. Benjamin is forced to adopt this identity as Lukas and work as an apprentice to his "father," Elias van Rooyen, building wood beams. At first, Benjamin resists this role, solely wanting to return to the Long Kloof and what he believes to be his family there. Over time, however, he has no choice but to make a home where he is and dissociate from his former life. Gradually, he takes on the mannerisms and mentalities of forest people, becoming accustomed to grueling labor and developing a loyalty to the van Rooyens, even helping Elias to subdue the rebellious Nina.
As he grows up through the story over the span of a decade, Benjamin transforms from a carefree child who loves to play with boats, to a stifled adolescent, to a young man feeling confused about his place in the world. Finally an adult, Benjamin is able to break free of the van Rooyens' grip and take some space by the seaside where he starts to doubt the original story of him being Lukas. Through the help of Nina, along with Barta van Rooyen's ultimate confession, Benjamin receives the clarity necessary to make an informed choice about who he truly wants to be, beyond others' projections of him. Between the van Rooyens and the Komoeties, Benjamin decides that it is the latter family that truly feels like home.
Fiela Komoetie is a woman living in the Long Kloof with her husband, Selling, and her five children. She defies all of the racist stereotypes of a black woman at this time: she is educated, hard-working, and wholly self-reliant. She became the matriarch of the household after Selling was sentenced to prison and his health deteriorated. She is constantly on top of the daily work, making sure everyone is occupied with a chore, believing deeply in the Protestant value of a strong work ethic. Her deep morality is evident in many of her actions, such as the fact that she took in Benjamin, an abandoned child, even though he is of a different race. We also see her compassion in the loving way she treats her ostriches, Kicker and Pollie, rather than seeing them solely as a source of profit. A religious woman, Fiela is constantly dialoguing with God, especially when times get tough and she feels she has been abandoned by her creator, not understanding why she has been made to suffer so much.
This is the contradiction of Fiela's character: on the one hand, she presents a tough and independent image, which is in many ways a reality; on the other hand, under this shell of self-sufficiency she has been forced to adopt in response to difficult life situations, there is still the softness of her maternal instinct that seeks comfort and emotional release. If Fiela has a flaw, it is that of pride, as we see in the way she resists admitting to Petrus—someone who could potentially help her—that Benjamin was taken. Perhaps in reaction to the unfair prejudices towards black people at this time, Fiela seeks to prove that she and her family are utterly capable, yet this often comes at the expense of pushing out support when it's most needed. Still, Fiela's fierce loyalty to her family and her perseverance when it comes to getting back Benjamin demonstrate a strong feminine leadership that is continually contrasted with the tyrannical presence of Elias van Rooyen. Just like the mother elephant who seeks revenge on Elias for killing her baby, Fiela will stop at nothing to confront the injustice done towards her child.
Selling is the husband of Fiela. While their children were still small, he impulsively killed one of the neighbors and was sentenced to prison for several years. During this time, he was forced to work on the construction of the road going from the Long Kloof to Knsyna. Although he was pardoned earlier than expected, the hard labor destroyed his health, affecting his ability to provide for his family and thereby requiring Fiela to take the lead of the household. Though his physical weakness makes it difficult for him to fully engage in family life, he is no less devastated than Fiela at Benjamin being taken. This is further driven home when Benjamin eventually returns and Selling's health improves as a result. Selling's calmness and levelheadedness are depicted in complementarity to Fiela's volatility, such as when he advises her to be polite when meeting the magistrate.
Emma, Kittie, Dawid, and Tollie Komoetie
Emma, Kittie, Dawid, and Tollie are the other children of Fiela and Selling. They play a mostly peripheral role in the story. Dawid is described as the sibling to whom Benjamin is closest and the one who is most supportive of his parents. His shocking death from a spider bite brings further despair to his parents, yet it also serves as the catalyst for Benjamin to return home.
Elias van Rooyen
Elias van Rooyen is a maker of wood beams who lives in the forest with his wife, Barta, and his four children. From the beginning of the story, Elias is shown to be stubborn, hostile, and shut off from his emotions; when his three-year-old son Lukas goes missing, Elias denies the possibility of it until the last possible moment, as if not wanting to deal with reality. He is constantly feeling annoyance towards his wife and children, seeing them mainly as vessels to serve him or to help him make money. When Lukas has supposedly been found nine years later, Elias mostly thinks about how the boy can be used for work. The narrative occasionally takes us into Elias' point of view, and here we witness his paranoid train of thoughts, constantly comparing himself to the woodcutters and worrying about how the forest elephants might kill him. As a result of Elias' obsession with money and status, he concocts several elaborate plans to trap the elephants and steal their ivory, through which he believes he can finally be free from the grueling work of beam-making.
In many ways, Elias is the antagonist of the story, yet he is never depicted as a malevolent caricature: rather, we see a flawed man whose deep survival fears and sense of entrapment in the forest lifestyle have led him to become the bully of his own family, trying to control his children so that they may never leave the forest either. This especially comes to a head with his daughter, Nina, who constantly tries to escape work and live out the playful whims of a child. Elias' response to constantly inflict physical punishment is neither just nor effective, leading to Nina's eventual flight from the family as well as Lukas' rejection of the van Rooyens.
Nina van Rooyen
Nina is the youngest of the van Rooyen children and the only girl. She stands out from her other siblings in that she detests staying at home and following the orders of her parents. She is by nature a free-spirit and a rebel, going against the feminine roles of forest life so that she may follow her heart's desires. Her deepest love is the forest itself: the trees and animals feel more like family to her than her own siblings do. When she gets her own mouth-organ, she enjoys nothing more than mimicking the songs of the birds, as if she desires to be one of them. Her respect for the elephants, especially after unexpectedly witnessing their birthing ritual, contrasts with Elias' wrath towards them. As Nina grows up and Elias forces her to work as a servant in the village, we see her struggle as her love of freedom comes into conflict with the practicalities of adult life.
When Benjamin arrives, Nina is the one van Rooyen to whom he can relate; she eventually inspires him to break free of his role in the family and seek his own identity. Benjamin's crush on Nina when they become older also guides him into the realization that he is not van Rooyen by blood, allowing him to leave the family without guilt.
Barta van Rooyen
Barta van Rooyen is the wife of Elias van Rooyen and the mother to Willem, Kristoffel, and Nina. She embodies the stereotype of a meek woman who is completely dominated by her authoritarian husband. In this way, she is portrayed as a very different type of woman than the ardent and self-confident Fiela. Barta plays a key role in the plot by choosing Benjamin as her lost son Lukas yet secretly knowing that he is not really Lukas. The reason she keeps this information to herself is subject to interpretation, but the fear of her husband's wrath may play into her reluctance to admit that she was wrong about Lukas. Though she is largely responsible for sustaining the erroneous situation, by telling the truth she also becomes the one who liberates Benjamin to go his own way.
Willem and Kristoleff van Rooyen
Willem and Kristoleff are the two elder brothers of the van Rooyen family. They have taken after their father by dedicating their lives to making wood beams and living in the forest. Their decision to work for their in-laws at times makes Elias feel angry and jealous. They are not prominent in the story, but they symbolize the type of man Lukas could become if he were to choose to stay with the van Rooyens.
The white census-takers
The white census-takers are the government officials who visited the Long Kloof to take information about the people there and found out about Benjamin being a white child living in a black family. They are the ones who take the boy away, thereby catalyzing the events of the story. The tall one is ultimately revealed to be responsible for causing Benjamin to stay with the van Rooyens, as he apparently told Barta van Rooyen before she looked at the lineup of boys that "the one in the blue shirt (Benjamin)" was her lost child. Their sense of duty to the law, coupled with their racism against the "Coloured," makes them feel justified in ripping the Komoetie family apart.
Mr. Goldsbury is the magistrate. He is an upper-class English man whose position endows him with a sense of authority that makes people like Fiela and Barta van Rooyen feel they must impress him or submit to him. He is instrumental in the decision to take Benjamin away from the Long Kloof. His authoritative yet hasty ruling exemplifies the regular injustices wrought by a prejudiced legal system.
Petrus Zondagh is a neighbor of the Komoeties. He is a white man of higher class. Although there are many tensions between white and black characters in the story, Petrus is shown to have a good relationship with the Komoeties. He employed Selling for many years and offers his help and sympathy after Benjamin is taken away from them.
Mr. Kapp is the forester whom the magistrate sends to check up on Lukas. Elias desperately tries to present a good image of himself and his family so as not to raise any suspicions of Lukas' maladjustment.
The Laghaans are neighbors of the Komoeties. We don't know much about them, nor do we directly meet them—we only hear about them through Fiela. Selling killed one of the Laghaans years earlier after they took his sheep. Fiela eventually saves up to buy their land, which she wants to give to Benjamin. For her, the Laghaans are a reminder of the troubles of the past.
Kaliel September is an oarsman whom Benjamin encounters when he visits the seaside. He ends up living with him for a few months, learning to row and fish. Kaliel is depicted as a tough man with a colorful array of past experiences as a sailor. Kaliel demonstrates self-sufficiency, which inspires Benjamin to create a new life for himself and cut ties with the van Rooyens.
John Benn is the pilot of the ship aboard which Benjamin desires to work. Before he can work with John, though, he must learn to row. John Benn is depicted as a gruff and serious man, yet he shows concern as Benjamin is going through his identity crisis and encourages the boy to lighten his burdens.
Miss Weatherbury is a wealthy English woman who hires Nina as a servant. Unlike other villagers, she is kind and gives the rebellious Nina many chances. She also encourages the girl to keep her wages rather than give them to her father.
Fiela’s Child Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fiela’s Child is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.