Fiela's Child

Fiela's Child Summary and Analysis of Chapters 18-24


It has been 41 days since Benjamin first arrived in the forest and he has now given up hope that Fiela will ever come to rescue him. Elias is away on his trip and Lukas and Nina are expected to continue their work on the beams. Nina continues going to the forest, though, knowing full well she will get beaten when her father returns. Benjamin wonders why Fiela has not come for him, wondering whether it is because he is white. He tries to pray but finds it difficult without the instruction of his mother. When Elias comes home a few days later, he is unusually quiet and secretive. The next morning, he takes Lukas and Nina into the forest, leading them to Klaas’s Kloof but not telling them why. He orders them to start digging a giant pit and shows them the tree to climb up if elephants are to come. For many days after, the children work on the pit, sometimes with their father and sometimes not. They still do not know what it is for.

Nina tells Lukas that she knows a secret; he shows little interest, but she tells him anyway. She proceeds to tell the whole story of how she tried to run away from home, just as he did as a three-year-old. She went very far in the forest, off the known paths, and tried to drown herself in the river but couldn't. Then, she climbed an incredibly tall tree and sat in the top, believing she would never come down. From this vantage point, she witnessed a herd of elephants engaging in some sort of ceremony for the birth of a baby elephant. The children return that evening and there is a very strange feeling in the house. Elias angrily informs Lukas that Fiela has come by to look for him and brought some of his things including clothes and an ostrich egg. Lukas is both excited and scared; he tries to get more information, but Elias, in a rage, shuts him up and tells him he would have Fiela killed if he could. Later, Lukas realizes that his mother is unlikely to return if she came with his things. The children return to working on beams and Elias catches an elephant calf in his pit, which deeply upsets Nina.

Over time, Benjamin begins to find it easier to occupy the role of Lukas and regard the van Rooyens as his family. Elias has been in a dark mood ever since he went to the pit to reap his reward and instead found a herd of angry elephants waiting for him; he now feels that he is not safe in the forest. Not feeling well, he asks Lukas and Nina to bring the beams by the gravel road to the village on their own. As they walk there, Nina is unusually quiet and says that she hopes her father dies. She asks Lukas to show her how to write her name. She then reminds Lukas that this is the road that leads to the Long Kloof and suggests that he make a run for it to finally escape. Lukas doesn’t trust her and thinks she will try to tell on him again to Elias. They sell the beams and return home. Elias tells them he won’t be able to go to the village to buy food the next day as usual, saying that his legs are sore, but the children know it’s actually because he fears the elephants will get him. Later, Nina is able to steal a mouth-organ from the village, so she returns the money to Lukas. Lukas plans to use this knowledge of her theft as potential blackmail in the future.

Lukas and Nina spend a beautiful Sunday in the forest where Nina plays her mouth-organ and imitates bird calls. They return later to find the forester, Mr. Kapp, with their father; something strange is afoot. Lukas is ordered to go read the Bible to Aunt Gertie while Nina meets with Mr. Kapp. Lukas reads to the old woman, but when he hears a commotion break out at the van Rooyen house, he runs back and discovers Nina in a meltdown because her father has hired her off as a servant for a job Mr. Kapp found for her. She will have to move to the village and work for a wealthy family, making fourpence a week, all of which she has to give to her father. On the day she leaves, Lukas accompanies her to the village. He tries to comfort her about her new life, feeling the parallel to when he was comforted by the Komoetie children when he had to leave. Nina tries to convince him to let her walk the rest of the way herself, but he doesn’t, knowing she’ll try to run away. As he drops Nina off, Lukas considers returning to the Long Kloof but doesn’t.

Time passes and Elias grows tired of being unable to leave home in fear of the elephants, feeling it is “worse than prison.” Elephants have a way of never forgetting, and because it was a calf that died, they are especially angry. Elias has been happy with both Kristoffel and Lukas, as they are hard workers and always do a good job. The only solution he can think of for his problem is to buy a gun to protect himself, but that requires knowing how to write, and Elias is illiterate. He dislikes even thinking of Nina, as he feels she has only caused him trouble; after her first week of work as a servant, she returned home. She was fired by the British family for poor behavior, but Willem brought her back and convinced the family to give her another chance. Again, though, she was fired for hitting the children and stealing things; at that point, she had ruined her reputation and could only get hired for half a shilling per week. Elias beat her after each time she failed, but it didn't seem to change her.

It has been seven years since Benjamin left Long Kloof. Back at the Komoeties, we learn that Dawid has died suddenly after being bitten by a button spider. Fiela is devastated: Dawid was the child who had always comforted her, especially after Benjamin was taken. Practically speaking, Fiela has made a lot of progress in the last years. She has raised several ostriches and gotten a thousand pounds for them. She has bought the Laghaans’ land and allowed them to stay in their house while tilling the property as her own. Yet after losing children, she finds little happiness. Tollie is occupied working with horses, of which Fiela disapproves. Emma is married to a preacher whom Fiela dislikes. Kittie still lives at Wolwekraal and has a baby daughter, named after Fiela, born out of wedlock with a local yard hand. Fiela still wonders if Benjamin will ever come back; Dawid always assured her he would. After they tried to find him in the forest, nearly getting lost in the wilderness, Fiela had given up hope. All she can do is ask God why He has done this to her.

At the van Rooyens', Elias demands Lukas to go look for Nina in the village; she has escaped her job again and is nowhere to be found. Lukas does not want to go to the village and has only gone once in the last few years since being in the forest, as it reminds him of his connection to Wolwekraal. He still has his five-shilling piece, which is no longer money to him but rather a symbol of his old life. As Lukas is heading to the village, he comes upon many visitors around who say there is a ghost ship. Lukas feels no desire to go to the village and is in no rush, so he heads towards the sea. When he gets there, he is moved by the sight of the ship, which is desolate and evokes memories of playing with boats as a child in the Long Kloof. By the shore, Lukas talks to a sergeant who tells him that no one knows how the ship got there. Lukas senses that the sergeant is overwhelmed, so he offers to help him watch over the ship for the night. While the sergeant is sleeping, Lukas walks around and takes in the landscape, which is quite different from the forest. Feeling at peace, he spots a shooting star, but he doesn’t make a wish.

Lukas goes to the village the next morning. There, a street-sweeper points him to the home of Miss Weatherbury, who lives by the lagoon, where Nina is now apparently residing. Lukas goes there and meets the old woman. She tells Lukas that Nina has been working for her but that she is very disobedient and frequently runs off to the hills. While Lukas waits around for Nina to return, he chats with Miss Weatherbury about Nina; the old woman says that she is unruly but that she wishes to give her a chance and is paying her seven shillings per week. Lukas tells her that he might have to come by every so often to collect her money for their family, and Miss Weatherbury tells him that Nina should be entitled to her own money. Nina is still not back, so Lukas walks to the lagoon. He takes in the landscape of the water and cliffs and watches a ship coming in, feeling at ease.

Back at Miss Weatherbury’s, Nina is home and panics when she sees Lukas. Lukas immediately tells her that he wants one favor from her, which is to go back to the forest and tell their parents that he will not be coming back. Nina agrees. The next morning, he sets out to find work with one of the men he saw by the lagoon the day before. He feels confident in his decision to leave behind the forest, knowing this was a chance to get away finally. He first asks the man he saw yesterday, John Benn, but John says he doesn’t have work for Lukas unless he knows how to row. He then goes to another man, an oarsman named Kaliel September, and asks him if he can teach him how to row. Kaliel says no to this but is able to give him a job helping with fishing. Kaliel can provide Lukas food and shelter but not money. Kaliel is a fierce man who lives in a ramshackle house where Lukas is given his own room. When Lukas spends his first night there, there is a big storm. He thinks of the van Rooyens, still with some guilt, and considers how he can get Kaliel to teach him how to row.

Elias van Rooyen is incredibly angry after receiving news that Lukas is not returning. Nina came back to tell him but would not come close enough to let him beat her. Now Elias thinks up a plan to get both of them back. He no longer feels that he is stranded, and he enlists the help of the descendent of the Outeniqua tribe, Hans, who suggests to Elias that, in order to go through the forest, he must cover himself with elephant dung. This way, he will not be targeted and killed by the elephants.


In this section, we begin to see a deep transformation taking place in all of the characters, most prominently in Benjamin/Lukas, who has now all but resigned to his new identity as Lukas. When the boy first arrived in the forest, he regarded the van Rooyens as alien, but as the years have gone by, he has allowed the memories of Wolwekraal to slowly fade into a distant past. This is most obvious in the way he now comfortably calls Elias “pa” and refers to Fiela in one instance as “the woman who raised me.” Interestingly, we also see how Lukas rejects the chance to run away again even though he is given plenty of opportunities to flee to the Long Kloof while out doing errands for his father. His hesitance to even go through the village when looking for Nina reflects the boy’s resistance to revisiting an old stage of life that he can no longer access; to acknowledge the happiness and feeling of family he experienced in the Komoetie home would only exacerbate the sense of misery and imprisonment he endures with the van Rooyens.

As the story progresses, however, there are subtle signs that Lukas has not completely forgotten the place from where he has come. Something gets sparked in him when he goes off on his own to the seaside and takes in the wide-open landscape that is a far cry from the dense forest; it reminds him of the place where he grew up and the freedom he felt there. Being by the sea also elicits memories of playing with toy boats on the river, his favorite activity in the Long Kloof. This moment by the water and out under the stars plants the seed for Lukas to decide a few days later that he will not return to Barnard’s Island. At 19, Lukas is old enough to make his own decisions, and it is clear that he no longer has any desire to be in the forest. What he does want, though, is not exactly articulated. He is simply following a feeling, one tied to the nostalgia of his former life, which lands him as an apprentice to a seaman by the name of Kaliel September. Working for Kaliel is not the ultimate destination; rather, it seems more like a stepping stone for Lukas to get somewhere better to which his heart is leading him—a place that still remains out of sight for both him and the reader.

Freedom is a theme that is deeply explored in these chapters. Lukas has the freedom to run away, yet for many years he chooses not to because he doesn’t know where else to go, nor who he truly is. He has adapted to his new role as a maker of wood beams and an honorable son to Elias, and he derives comfort and meaning from this function. Not until glancing at the boats in the harbor does it all come back to him: the childhood joy and wonder that have been drained from him after years of heavy work. Without this memory and knowledge of something better, young adults like Lukas and his brothers are content to carry out their very limited duties for the duration of their lives. Nina, on the other hand, sacrifices everything she knows—the approval of her family, the stability of a job—to be free. Her tendency to escape into the forest could be seen as an avoidance of responsibility, or it could be viewed as an expression of her desire for a better type of life, something more than the drudgery of menial labor. Nina is even willing to suffer her father’s savage beatings if it means she can spend time in the forest, her true home. It is no wonder, then, that Lukas is most able to relate to Nina, as they share a common yearning for the sense of home beyond the van Rooyen house.

Nina’s deep love for and connection to nature is notably contrasted with Elias’ vision of the forest as a place to be exploited and feared. His effort to kill an elephant in order to sell its ivory and leave behind the grueling work of making beams backfires on him when his trap actually takes down a calf and he is put on a sort of elephant hit list. Elias feels he can no longer even set foot in the forest without being stalked and trampled on by a herd. Nina, conversely, has a profound sense of wonder when it comes to the elephants, as seen when she tells Lukas about witnessing one of their birthing rituals. When she finds out that her father has covertly enlisted her in building the pit that kills a baby elephant, she is angry and devastated. The reader may question why it is that the elephants target Elias when both Nina and Lukas also helped to build the pit. Perhaps this shows how the elephants are more aware than humans usually regard animals to be: they can perceive the subtle motivations involved in human actions and thus understand that the children were forced against their will to help kill an elephant. Fiela’s Child thus conveys a vision of animals as highly intelligent and sentient beings to be respected.

Dalene Matthee relates this story of family and origin in such a way as to keep our perceptions loose and broad, so we never identify too heavily with just one character. She does this mainly through her frequent shifting between different characters’ perspectives: that of Benjamin, Fiela, Elias, and Nina. In these chapters, Matthee even has us look through the eyes of the elephants of the forest as they observe Elias van Rooyen coming home from his expedition. The experiences of both the Komoeties and the van Rooyens are expressed in their fullness and complexity of human emotion, and in this way, the reader is able to have compassion even for figures like Elias, as we can see that, alongside his cruelty and greediness, he has a deep fear of failing to provide for his family. The narrative being told through a fluid variety of perspectives also mirrors the lack of stable identity Lukas/Benjamin has throughout the book, especially as he starts to distance himself from the van Rooyens and consciously question who he is.