Fiela's Child

Fiela's Child Summary and Analysis of Chapters 12-17


Benjamin has been at the van Rooyen’s now for five days; he still hopes his mother will come and rescue him. He is quiet and doesn’t respond to being called Lukas at first. Slowly, though, he starts to warm up to his sister, Nina, when, one day, she convinces him to explore the forest with her. He is hoping that she will show him the path that will lead him out of the forest and back to the Long Kloof. When Nina confronts him with the fact that he is Lukas and they have the same parents, he is still in denial, saying that he is the son of Fiela Komoetie. While they are in the forest, Benjamin loses track of Nina and searches for her. She has played a trick on him by hiding in the undergrowth and then jumping out at him to scare him. Nina then shows Benjamin her collection of glass bottles that she uses to make music. He tells her that he will give her his five shillings if she shows him the path out of the forest; she agrees to do it the next day, as she wants to buy a mouth-organ and a blanket.

Elias van Rooyen is beginning to get frustrated by the way Lukas refuses to speak and decides that he will force the boy to help him with the beams the next day. He believes that Lukas must be obedient and scoffs at the magistrate’s advice to be patient. Elias can only think of how the boy can help bring in more money for the family, as his presence is now costing them more as well. When Lukas returns from the forest that night, Elias insists that he will have to work with him. When Nina asks her father if she can go to the village with him soon, Elias refuses and becomes suspicious of her and Lukas. The next morning, he forces Lukas to make wood beams with him, and the boy seems anxious again. Elias enlists Nina to help with the beams and is pleased by the children’s work. Their neighbor Malie comes by to talk with Elias; Elias does not like her, but he tries to be polite since his son works with Malie’s husband. While Malie is talking to Elias, he is distracted enough to miss Lukas and Nina running off.

Fiela Komoetie reaches Knysna on the second day in the evening. On the previous night, she slept in a cave, where she “made peace with God.” Now arriving in the village, she is guided by a town drunkard who tells her that she can sleep peacefully behind the schoolhouse. He doesn’t know, however, about the two census men whom she describes. That night, she ponders how she will possibly convince the magistrate to return her child, but she comforts herself that the magistrate is a man of the law and will have to do what is fair. She goes to the magistrate the next morning and initially has trouble finding someone who can speak Dutch rather than English. Finally, she is put in touch with a constable who tells her that Benjamin was the child of the forest woman and that the case is closed; she is not able to talk to the magistrate. Fiela is in shock, having expected any other outcome besides this one. She walks back to the Long Kloof, defeated, and tells the other Komoeties the bad news.

Elias is able to find Lukas before he can get to the gravel road that leads to Knysna through following his footprints. He beats the child in the woods, demanding that he call him “pa” and say that he is Lukas, not Benjamin. He brings him home; Barta is distressed that he has beaten the child, but Elias says he had no other choice. Lukas spits in Nina’s face when they get back, as he is furious with her for betraying him by telling Elias his whereabouts as well as stealing his five pence. In the following days, though, there appears to be an improvement in the boy. Lukas helps Elias with the wood beams and does a good job; Elias is hopeful that he can take over the work for him someday. Lukas/Benjamin is miserable and can’t stop thinking about when Fiela will come for him, wondering if perhaps she got lost. When the days turn rainy, they can’t work and the whole family must stay indoors, which Benjamin finds dreadful. On one rainy day, Nina escapes the house against her father’s orders; when she returns that evening, he beats her severely and cuts her long hair off with a knife.

The Komoeties are in a deep state of mourning after Fiela returns from Knysna. For a few days, they can’t even bear to work, but eventually, Fiela forces everyone to return to work and not become “blind” in the sorrow. Selling is especially worried that Benjamin will have a hard time adjusting to forest life. Fiela directs the children in building a shelter for the ostriches, but she feels a “rebellion welling up in her” due to her grief. Fiela sternly asks Selling whether or not he thinks it is possible for a three-year-old boy to have made it from the forest to the Long Kloof, and Selling says no. Later, Fiela enlists the children in trying to find the passage in the Bible where the two women fight over a child. They can’t find it; Petrus Zondagh helps them, pointing them to Kings. Fiela declines to tell Petrus about what happened to Benjamin, even though Selling has encouraged her to tell the truth.

Fiela resolves to again search for Benjamin and she sets out for Knysa again, this time with an angrier and more forthright attitude. She goes straight to the magistrate’s; when she knocks on the door and starts forcefully talking to the man who answers, she doesn’t realize she is talking to the magistrate himself. When he informs her of this, she continues on, trying to make her case for seeing Benjamin again. Fiela argues that it is highly unlikely for the boy to have made it all the way from the forest to the Long Kloof and that perhaps the mother identified him sheerly by chance. The magistrate becomes increasingly angry and repeatedly tells her that the case has been closed. Deafeated in both body and spirit, Fiela returns home. Soon after, Petrus Zondagh shows up and pushes her to speak to him, sensing that something is wrong. Against her pride, Fiela finally admits that Benjamin has been taken. Petrus is sympathetic and tells her he will be going to Knysna soon and will talk to the magistrate directly. As Petrus is white and a man of status, Fiela and Selling are filled with hope again.

Elias decides that he will set up a snare-pit in order to try to trap the elephants so he can get their tusks. He tries to keep the plan a secret so that no one else steals his idea. His son Kristoffel comes home on Friday to inform him that a forester will come to visit on Sunday to talk with Elias. Elias doesn’t mind this, but he orders Barta to tidy up the house for the event. He knows the forester is sent by the magistrate and coming to talk about Lukas. Elias decides it’s better for the boy not to be around, as he is worried he might be in one of his moods and that will reflect badly on him. That Sunday, Elias tells Lukas to go play in the forest with Nina. When the forester arrives, he asks about how Lukas is adjusting. Elias tries to answer his questions but also hopes he will leave quickly, before Lukas returns. The forester reports that, according to the magistrate, Mrs. Komoetie is trying to track down the boy, and that Elias should inform him if she appears. It is becoming night and the children aren’t back yet, so the forester leaves, much to Elias’ relief. He demands that Barta cook him enough food for a week so he can set off on his trip to trap the elephants.

The Komoeties eagerly await Petrus Zondagh's return from Knysna. The children are under the impression that he will return with Benjamin, but Fiela knows that this is not certain. When it takes him a week to return, they imagine all sorts of scenarios—Petrus may have had to go to court or wait for them to fetch Benjamin from the forest. When Petrus finally arrives back at the Long Kloof, he somberly informs the Komoeties that he has talked with the magistrate and it is clear that Benjamin is truly the child of the forest couple. There is nothing more he can do about it. Fiela becomes angry, and Petrus tells her that she must accept this news. He tells her to be happy that she was able to give Benjamin a good life and that she can’t “try and divide” and child, as she wouldn't get half.


The novel unfolds through two worlds: that of the Komoeties, and that of the van Rooyens. This section documents how Benjamin, who is now Lukas, adjusts to his new family and how Fiela endures this situation as a mother who feels that her child has been stolen from her. Fiela is portrayed in these chapters both as a heroine and as a tragic figure. We see her as the selflessly devoted mother who walks for days through the mountains for the sake of a minuscule possibility of seeing her son again; she is someone who keeps the household running despite the heaviness of sorrow she carries in her heart. Then again, Dalene Matthee is not shy about painting her protagonist in all of her human desperation and uncertainty. While Fiela must keep on a strong face for her children’s sake, inside she feels ripped apart and acutely frightened not only for Benjamin but also for the image of happiness and stability that she feels has been lost for her family.

Fiela’s reluctance to admit to Petrus Zondagh what truly happened to Benjamin reveals a type of pride that makes her believe she must carry the full burden of the situation on her shoulders. Yet, of course, when she finally admits to Petrus that Benjamin has been taken away, she finds that others are, in fact, willing to help. Her deep desire to maintain control over her life and the circumstances around her is hinted at in her frequent appeals to God, whom she views as a sort of omnipresent benefactor who will help her out if she is good and disregard her anguish if she is not. In each instance where Fiela is unsuccessful in getting closer to Benjamin, we see her surrender more and more, no longer pleading with God but rather coming closer to an acceptance of the situation, though the painful emotions are still there.

Again we see how Matthee creates a parallel between Fiela and Elias van Rooyen, as Elias has similarly taken the role upon himself to be the leader and protector of the family and panics when he struggles to embody this ideal notion of authority. He is displeased at the notion of Nina playing in the forest rather than working, thinking that this is a poor reflection of him as a father. The more that Lukas rebels against his newfound setting, the more Elias tries to lay down the law through physical punishment and controlling the boy’s every movement. And then Elias tries to present this false image of perfection to outsiders, such as the forester, who come to inquire about Lukas. Like we do with Fiela, we see Elias progressively break down as he fails to maintain some leverage over his family, and we see his ultimate desperation when he again plans to go after the elephants, which wielded disastrous results in his previous attempt. The key difference between Elias and Fiela is that Fiela is principally motivated by genuine love, whereas Elias is mostly motivated by power.

In the midst of this all, the focal point of the story remains on Benjamin/Lukas, who is bewildered by his new, strange family. Beaten into submission every time he tries to stay true to his former identity, the boy has no other choice but to conform. Elias tries to suppress any notion of Benjamin’s past home by forcing him to call him “pa” and to stop using the vernacular of the “colored,” yet Benjamin's former life cannot truly be forgotten. We see through Benjamin’s internal monologue how he continues to think of Elias and Barta as foreign, impersonal figures, referring to them as “the man” and “the woman” and thinking of Fiela and Selling as his real mother and father. Here is one of the essential messages of Fiela’s Child: that home is truly where the heart is, and that beyond blood relationships and differences of race, there is a stronger bond of love that keeps Benjamin connected to the Komoeties. Elias may partly succeed in banishing Benjamin’s old memories, but he is unable to make him feel love for and kinship with the van Rooyens.

What makes Matthee’s story particularly poignant is that despite the magistrate’s ruling and Barta van Rooyen’s supposed certainty that Benjamin is her Lukas, the whole situation remains an enigma. As Fiela repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, it is nearly inconceivable that a three-year-old boy could make it across the treacherous mountain path to the Long Kloof, a journey that takes Fiela two days with food packed and good knowledge of the terrain. And this slim likelihood is challenged further when Benjamin, trying to escape the van Rooyen house, struggles to make his way out of the forest and is caught by Elias before he can even reach the gravel road. Fiela fiercely argues with the magistrate on this point and suggests that Barta should name the clothes Lukas was wearing on the day he was lost as a form of verification. The magistrate is only able to dismiss her reasonable point because she is a colored woman and is overstepping social boundaries. We see, however, that her argument has sparked some degree of doubt in the official, evident in the way that he sends the forester to the van Rooyens to check on how the boy is adjusting. In this way, suspense is being built, as it seems increasingly likely that some sort of confrontation between van Rooyen and Komoetie camps must eventually take place.

Stylistically, Matthee has a way of weaving her story through not only the present tense action of the plot but also the array of flashbacks that give a sense of the past. For example, there is the instance when Elias’ neighbor, Malie, chats to him about the time a strange visitor came and judged the forest residents on their killing and eating of the parrots. This small anecdote is a powerful detail that reveals much about the forest community and how they are perceived by the outside world. There is also the moment when Fiela remembers the story of Pace, a man who came up against the powerful force of the church and won in court. Not only does this tell the reader more about South African culture at that time: it also fleshes out the thought process of Fiela, who hopes that the law will be on her side in the case of Benjamin.