Fiela's Child

Fiela's Child Dalene Matthee's Forest Novels

Fiela's Child, which documents a boy's quest to discover his true identity, is perhaps Dalene Matthee's best-known work. The variation of South African landscapes serves an important role in the story in marking the different stages of life that the protagonist, Benjamin, experiences. Taken from the Long Kloof, an area of open plains, to live in the dense Knysna Forest, Benjamin must adjust not only to his new family but also to this strange new setting. The forest is portrayed as a magical and sometimes dangerous place where one must constantly be wary of his surroundings and look out for traveling elephant herds. Although Benjamin finds moments of appreciation for the flora and fauna of Knysna, he eventually realizes that his heart is at home in the wide free spaces of the Kloof.

Yet Fiela's Child is only one of several novels the South African author has penned about the Knysna Forest. In total, Matthee has written four books that feature this forest in some way. In 1984, she published the first of the series, Circles in a Forest, which explores how habitat destruction has led to the extermination of Knysna elephants. Matthee was inspired after spending time in the enchanting Outeniqua Forest, where she had many close encounters with elephants. Matthee's experience with these awesome creatures led her to ponder why they were so quickly becoming extinct. Circles was a great literary success, winning the prestigious ATKV Prose Prize and later being turned into a film.

Fiela's Child, the second forest novel, also garnered Matthee many prizes and international attention. In 1987, Matthee came out with The Mulberry Forest, which tells the story of Italian silkworm farmers who try to start a silk industry in Knysna. The final forest novel, Dreamforest, was published decades later in 2003, only shortly before Matthee's death. It recalls the romance of a man and woman from the forest who move to a village where they must adapt to more modernized ways of living.

Throughout all four of the forest novels, there is a common concern about the conservation of and respect for the natural world. There is also an exploration of the tension between traditional ways of living in nature versus the quick-paced and profit-oriented focus of village life. Matthee never pushes an overt message; rather, she articulates through her characters' actions the impact of human greed and exploitation on the purity of the environment. In Fiela's Child, we see how Elias van Rooyen feels enormously pressured not only to survive but also to compete with the new wealth, thus deciding to trap and kill elephants. Yet in Matthee's vision, one can never get away with such harm for very long. The elephants seek justice against Elias and hurt him—not as punishment, but rather as the way of nature rebalancing itself and reminding man of his place within the web of life.