The story opens on the day that a child goes missing. We are introduced to Elias van Rooyen, who is chopping wood in the forest. It is a very foggy day. He is the man of one of four families on Barnard’s Island and the only one who is not a woodcutter by trade. His wife, Barta, serves him coffee. Elias ponders how he can provide for his family, especially as his four children grow older. His eldest child, the 6-year-old Willem, informs him that his brother, 3-year-old Lukas, is missing. He goes to look for him everywhere but can’t find him. Everyone begins to worriedly look for Lukas, including Aunt Malie, Gertie, Sofie, and Barta. This is much to the annoyance of Elias, who feels sure that the boy must have fallen asleep in someone’s house. Elias searches all over the island and in the forest, slowly coming to realize that the child is, in fact, missing.
By nightfall, he is still not found and Barta is in deep grief. The other women tend to her and the house becomes “like a house of death.” They are all worried that Lukas will get lost in the fog and or perhaps killed by the “bigfeet,” which are elephants. Malie’s husband, Martiens, takes over and orders everyone to different activities to help the situation. The men search all night for the boy with no success. Each following day, more and more men from the island join the search—until the sixth day, at which point Martiens admits that the boy can’t be alive any longer. Barta is devastated, as is Elias, although he is still somewhat in denial of what has happened. Seven months later, in August 1865, a forester reports to Elias that he has found the skeleton of what looks like a small child, although it could also be that of a baboon.
In the single page of Chapter 2, we learn about a boy named Benjamin, who has always felt like his parents’ “hand-child,” meaning that he was fed by hand rather than from the breast of his mother. He and his siblings Dawid, Tollie, Emma, and Kittie live between the mountains in the Long Kloof, next to their neighbors, the “stupid Laghaans.”
In the next chapter, we meet Fiela Komoetie, the mother of Benjamin and the other children. This summer, Fiela has failed to recognize several strong omens, being too focused on the ostrich. She and her husband Selling have come into possession of an ostrich, a very valuable animal. She thinks of the hardship of the terrible droughts this year as well as Selling’s ill health, but then she corrects herself, knowing it is sinful not to be grateful to God for what He has provided. She is happy to have one male ostrich, Kicker, who is now 3 years old; now she has gotten him a hen, a female ostrich. The feathers of the ostrich alone have provided Fiela with a lot of money. She is excited at the prospect of breeding them and making even more money. Her children help bring in the new female ostrich.
Two men dressed in black suits arrive by cart at Fiela’s house. She is nervous and surprised to see such strange characters. They are from the government, sent there to do a census; they request that Fiela and Selling provide the names and birthdates of themselves and their children. This sends Fiela into an internal panic, for a reason not explicitly said. She prays that Kicker will break loose from his pen so that she can be distracted and can get out of talking to these men. Unlike Selling, she is able to provide them her birthdate, which is apparently rare for “colored” people in the area, who typically don’t know their details. We learn that Fiela is also somewhat literate. She then gives them the information of her five children and tells them about what they do for a living (farming) and the church to which they belong.
Then, all of a sudden, Benjamin, the youngest child at 12 years old, appears in the room. His presence shocks the government men, as he is white, while Fiela and the rest of her family are black. The men become upset, asking how Fiela can possibly have a white child and insisting that she must have stolen him. Fiela, having known that this day would come, fiercely defends her child and explains how he was left on her doorstep. One of the men remembers the lost van Rooyen boy in Knysna from nine years ago and suggests that Benjamin may be that boy. Fiela denies this, noting that it would be impossible for a three-year-old to walk such a far distance. The men try to talk to Benjamin and see if he remembers anything about the day he was found, but he doesn’t. The men leave frustrated, promising to return to Knysna the next day to inquire about the other boy.
A few months go by; Fiela begins to relax when it becomes April and the men still have not returned. The “stone” of her worry becomes lighter. They name the female ostrich Pollie. Fiela wants to start bringing the two ostriches out in the pasture but is worried that Pollie still has her “wildness” and might try to escape. She orders her children to take turns watching them—except for Benjamin, who isn’t allowed because he gets too close to the birds. When they bring Pollie out to the pasture, she is surprisingly calm. Fiela is frustrated that Kicker hasn’t yet made a move to mate with Pollie and is worried they won’t reproduce soon enough so that she can sell their feathers and buy the land of the Laghaans. One evening, Benjamin runs to his mother in excitement; Fiela becomes frightened, thinking that the government men are back to take him. But, to her relief, Benjamin informs her that Pollie is doing a mating dance.
The narrator returns to Elias van Rooyen, who is contemplating his new plan and feeling annoyed by the constant questions from Barta. His sons are now older, but he still feels burdened, as if he has little help in his work. Elias’ plan was sparked after hearing a story from Dawid Olwage. Dawid was in the forest when he saw a group of elephants—a surprising sight, considering the narrowness of the path. He then observed them getting around the edge of the cliff by wrapping their trunks around a tree and carrying themselves over to the other side. Hearing this, Elias has the idea to slightly saw the trees there so the elephants will grab onto it and then fall down the cliff and die. This way, he would be able to scavenge their tusks, something he has always strived for. He tells Barta that he is going away for five days, but he doesn’t tell her the real reason why.
Elias observes his daughter Nina, now 10, and thinks about the uselessness of having a daughter while living in the forest, as she is not able to help provide for the family. He also thinks about how difficult it is not to be a woodcutter in this community, feeling that he is looked down upon by the others; the woodcutters compare his work of making beams, believing he makes more money than they do. Elias sets out for the forest and is able to find the tree that Dawid spoke of. He does his work to loosen the tree and then must wait out until the elephants come around. He waits for days until he finally sees the elephants come by, right when he is on the verge of giving up and going home. However, when the elephants go around the bend and approach the tree, they pause, knowing that something is wrong; they end up turning around and going the other way.
Elias is extremely upset and frustrated that his plan has been in vain. When he tries to return home the next day, he encounters a group of elephants who almost trample him; he runs for his life. He must go another way and gets home later than he intended; Barta has worried about him, but he brushes off her concern, feeling sorry for himself. Right after this, a forester comes to his door and informs him that men from the government have possibly located Lukas, his lost son. A boy has been found with colored people in the Long Kloof. Elias can hardly believe it, and he is told by the forester that the boy will be sent for the next day.
The first few chapters of Fiela’s Child takes the reader into life in 19th-century South Africa through the exploration of two different families: the van Rooyens and the Komoeties. From the initial sentence, we are placed into a scene of tragedy: the three-year-old Lukas van Rooyen has gone missing and, after many days of searching, the people of the rural forest community conclude that he is dead. Although this situation is encapsulated within one short chapter, much is revealed here about the dynamics of the van Rooyens. There is the patriarch, Elias, a builder of wood beams who is portrayed as being overwhelmed by the responsibilities of family life. The strenuous nature of his work has left him frequently daydreaming about hunting one of the wild elephants that populate the forest in order to sell the precious tusks. This fantasy speaks to Elias’ reluctance to grapple with the stark facts of his life, and this stubbornness is reflected when Lukas disappears and Elias tries to convince himself that the boy isn’t actually missing, even though all signs point towards that reality.
In the chapters that follow, the narration jumps nine years later and switches focus to the lives of Fiela, Selling Komoetie, and their five children. A black family, they primarily make their living through farming and, when they're lucky, selling feathers from their ostriches. It is slowly disclosed that the youngest son, Benjamin, is white; this is the reason Fiela goes into a panic when census-takers arrive at their home. When the government men make the connection between Benjamin and the lost Lukas van Rooyen, it becomes evident that the story will center on Benjamin and the uncovering of his true identity, as well as the relationship between the van Rooyens and the Komoeties.
In the context of a segregated South Africa, the van Rooyens and Komoeties would be regarded as occupying quite distinct worlds, yet author Darlene Matthee subtly illustrates their similarities throughout these chapters. The main comparison is drawn between the respective leaders of each household: Fiela Komoetie and Elias van Rooyen. In both cases, we see these characters trying to nurture their families as the main provider. For Fiela, she zealously organizes the work and assigns her children chores, while her ill husband Selling has a more laidback attitude. Elias toils away constructing beams, feeling at times unsupported by his wife Barta. Both Fiela and Elias have set their eyes on a future where they will be rich and will perhaps not have to work quite as hard. For Elias, the ivory tusks are the key; for Fiela, the key is her ostriches.
This common concern for stability and prosperity speaks to the challenging circumstances of life in the country and to people who live deeply connected to the land. The relationship the characters have with the elements and animals around them is pronounced in these pages. Repeatedly, Matthee emphasizes that the lives of people in rural South Africa are bound to the cycles of nature. For example, Fiela and her family struggle through the drought that summer, and while trying to understand it through religious terms, ultimately must adapt to the climate accordingly. Similarly, the fog overwhelms the landscape and forces people to tread carefully; in the instance of Lukas’ disappearance, it makes it more difficult to search for the lost boy. Elias van Rooyen’s unsuccessful effort to kill elephants for their tusks speaks to the dual dependence on and exploitation of the natural world. While men may try to profit from animals, they are no match for the sheer size and power of these wild beasts.
Author Dalene Matthee has a way of weaving her plot that retains its suspense and mystery, declining to provide too many answers or too much characterization too soon, thereby keeping the narration flowing in a lifelike manner. Matthee doesn’t hurry to reveal information before it is natural to do so. For instance, Fiela’s alarm when the census men show up is not explained right away; it is not until Benjamin appears and we learn that he is white that we start connecting the dots as to why Fiela dreaded that visit. Furthermore, nowhere does Matthee ever suggest one way or another that Benjamin is actually Lukas; the reader is left to wonder whether the census men’s accusation could be true and whether it is possible for a toddler to have wandered all the way across a range of mountains to reach the Komoetie residence. This mysteriousness pervades the writing and beckons us to read further in order to start piecing together the greater picture.