Fiela's Child

Fiela's Child Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-11


Fiela wakes in the morning; from the direction of the wind, she can tell there will be no aloe yield. The previous day, Pollie the ostrich kicked Tollie, and Fiela is thankful that she didn’t injure him more severely. She goes to Kicker that morning and tells him that she will put Pollie in his enclosure; she insists that he mate with her. Selling disapproves of this plan, thinking it is too soon. As the children and Fiela try to corner Pollie into going with Kicker, Fiela sees that the two government men have appeared again. She panics, thinking back to recently when Benjamin questioned her about the men and why she was so afraid of them. He also asked her why he is white and the rest of his family is brown. She tried to avoid this question but told him that there might be a day when “only God will be able to help us.”

The men inform Fiela that the magistrate has demanded to see Benjamin. She tells them that the magistrate can come here to see him, and they tell her not to give them a hard time. The men insist that the magistrate, Mr. Goldbury, simply wants to know if Benjamin is the boy who disappeared in the forest nine years earlier. They insist on bringing the boy to Knysna to see him on Friday, without Fiela. Fiela is very argumentative, resenting what they are doing. The men, angry at her attitude, accuse her of keeping the boy out of school and church, which she denies. They leave, saying that they will pick him up the next day, and she begins to think of what to do. She figures that she either has to hide him in the hills or let him go to Knysna. She realizes that she must do the latter. Quickly, she orders everyone to different tasks to prepare Benjamin to go to town. When Dawid questions if Benjamin is the lost boy, Fiela reiterates that it’s impossible. Fiela gives Benjamin a bath and prepares him to speak to the magistrate. Everyone in the family is quiet and sad that evening; the next morning, Benjamin leaves with the government men.

Benjamin travels in the horse cart with the two men. He is frightened when the cart must be pulled down the steep incline, thinking of others who have died that way. The men tell him to stop worrying. By noon, they are still not even halfway to Knysna yet. The men are amused by the way he talks like a black child, calling them “master.” They reach the Forest, where the landscape dramatically changes. Benjamin is amazed by the number of trees and the sounds of birds. The men become serious and tell him to look out for elephants on the path. The boy falls asleep in the cart; when he wakes up, they have arrived at the house of the one of the men and is greeted by the man’s wife, who stares at Benjamin curiously. He sleeps that night and wakes up the next morning frightened. He is taken to the magistrate’s courtroom and feels extremely nervous. He asks one of the census men if he will return home the next day and he is told that that depends on what the magistrate decides.

Elias and Barta are making their way to the magistrate’s place in the village that same day. It is far away, so they must wake up and start walking at four in the morning. They are cautious of elephants as Elias is still scared of them after his incident in Stinkwood Kloof. Since they received news of Lukas possibly being found, Barta has become very stressed and excited, much to Elias’ annoyance. They are both extremely curious to see if the boy is truly Lukas, as it would be a large feat for him to have made it all the way to the Long Kloof. Barta keeps asking Elias if he believes it can truly be Lukas, and Elias tells her she will just have to see for herself. As they walk, the jittery Barta contemplates not going, but Elias insists she must.

While Benjamin waits for the magistrate to come in, he thinks back to the time when he and his brother Dawid attempted to steal a wild ostrich’s egg for their mother, which is very dangerous as ostriches are able to kill people. Fiela gave the boys lashes for doing this but also seemed pleased and baked a cake for Benjamin’s birthday using the egg. Suddenly, the magistrate enters. He is neither friendly nor strict; he asks Benjamin questions about his early memories, to which Benjamin keeps repeating that he is a Komoetie. He lines up Benjamin with other boys his age and has Barta and Elias come in; Barta immediately picks out Benjamin from the group. The magistrate tells the boy that he will have to go live with his real parents; Benjamin, in shock and denial, keeps reiterating that he is Fiela’s child and that he wants to go back to her.

Back at the Komoeties', Fiela tries to focus on working, but her heart is with Benjamin. On Saturday, she is anxious for the boy to return; however, knowing that she can’t wait around all day for him, she orders everyone in the family to chores, including the harvest of aloe. Selling is unwell and can’t do much. He asks Fiela if she thinks Benjamin will return and Fiela tells him to focus on working—otherwise, the Devil will come in to tempt them and they will lose their faith. The whole family stays up late that night waiting for Benjamin, but he does not come, nor does he come the next day. On Monday, Fiela announces she is going on foot alone to Knysa to get him, and she gives everyone tasks to do while she is away.

Benjamin walks through the Forest with Elias and Barta, who say they are his parents but seem like strangers to him. He won’t respond to any of their comments or questions and doesn’t like being called Lukas. It is a long walk and Benjamin is extremely tired. Once they arrive home, all of the family and friends gather around and stare at him; Benjamin is too tired to do anything but sit there. One older woman encourages Elias and others to have patience and sympathy for the boy, as he is confused about what is happening. All Benjamin can think about is how he will possibly get out of the dense forest and return to the Long Kloof.

Fiela walks through the mountains and tries to pace herself, knowing it is a long journey. She has done this journey before, though, as a younger woman. She tries to think about what she will say to the magistrate and how she will ask God for help. Yet secretly, she is mad at God for not bringing Benjamin home, and, in this emotion, she knows the Devil will try to tempt her even more. She worries that someone, perhaps the Laghaans, told the magistrate another of her deepest secrets: that Selling committed murder back in 1859. She reminisces about first meeting Selling. He had moved to the Long Kloof to work for their neighbor Petrus Zondagh. Selling became interested in Fiela; soon after they had Kittie and then Dawid. After Tollie was born, they finally got married and received a good amount of money from Petrus.

On one occasion, Selling was supposed to slaughter a sheep for Christmas dinner but could not locate the animal. Finally, he returned to the house seeming concerned and told Fiela that he found two of the Laghaans skinning the sheep. The next day, constables came to inform Fiela that Selling stabbed one of the Laghaans to death, at which point Selling was taken away to jail. Fiela was furious that she should lose her husband on account of a drunkard like a Laghaan. Selling was going to get sentenced to hanging but instead got a life sentence. Fiela received news that he would be working as a convict to construct the new road from Knysna to the Long Kloof. The road project was initiated by a white man named Mr. Bain, but the actual path was discovered by elephants who had migrated between the two places over the last centuries.

While Selling was hard at work up in the mountains, Fiela, with the newborn Emma, would go to visit him and secretly bring him food. This took place for several years and required Fiela to learn the ways of the path and how to approach the convicts without bringing attention to herself. While he was imprisoned, Benjamin showed up at Fiela’s door; Fiela informed Selling of the new child, although she didn’t tell him that he is white. One day, however, Selling appeared at home and informed her that he had been pardoned by the Prince. Although that was a relief, the extremely hard labor had robbed Selling of his health, and he was never the same after that. He was surprised to discover that Benjamin was white.


As the plot of Fiela’s Child continues, new complexities emerge. Benjamin, also known as Lukas, has been placed with what is supposedly his true blood family, while Fiela, the only mother whom he knows, is betrayed by the government men who promised that they would return her son to her. In the climate of a segregated society where black people are seen as a lesser race, we can see how the census men can justify their actions as the most rational thing to do. For the government, it is an automatic response to return the boy to his original family, and even if that family turns out not to be his actual blood relations, it is still better in their eyes for him to be with other whites than with “colored" people. For a white boy to live with blacks is regarded as highly inappropriate, and so to take Benjamin back to the van Rooyens is conceived as restoring him to his rightful place; this is expressed in the way the magistrate tells the boy that he will thank him when he is older for bringing him “home.” All of this is executed with no concern for the feelings of the Komoeties.

Yet however the adults see their role and responsibility in this situation, what is clear is that the 12-year-old boy is nothing but bewildered in this abrupt and drastic change of circumstance. It is easy to be sympathetic for the Komoeties, for, despite their demanding work routine and rudimentary way of life, they have provided a good home for Benjamin and truly seem to love the boy as their own. Fiela—even with determination to raise her children with a disciplined, Protestant worth ethic—cannot be described as a cold or unaffectionate mother. It seems, in fact, that Benjamin is almost her favorite child and her mission to locate him again derives from genuine motherly instinct.

These chapters illuminate Fiela’s complicated character. On one hand, she is the head of the family, completing the most gruesome chores, such as slaughtering animals, unfazed by the task of walking through the mountain wilderness to find her son. We also learn of the time when she covertly visited Selling while he was imprisoned, risking herself each time to do so. Yet, on the other hand, we are shown Fiela’s deep maternal nature and her unwavering devotion to and dependence on her family. We also see her softness of heart in the gentle way she speaks to her ostriches, regarding them almost like additional children.

Regarding Benjamin, we see in multiple instances the genuine love and respect he holds for his adoptive parents, such as the way he thinks of Selling when arriving at the forest for the first time, daydreaming about how he wants to bring a gift back for his father. Dalene Matthee tends to alternate between different characters’ points-of-view, and when she chooses to narrate through the eyes of Benjamin, the reader is made to feel the frustration, confusion, and raw fear of a 12-year-old boy who is plucked out of the only family and lifestyle he has ever consciously known. Matthee’s writing expresses the nervousness the boy feels when he is traveling to Knysa and in the office of the magistrate: he keeps returning to inwardly reciting the multiplication tables and the lines his mother gave him to say; this strange scenario is nothing he has ever known before; by focusing on these known facts, he can comfort himself to an extent.

Benjamin/Lukas comes face-to-face with the reality of race through this unlikely turn of events. Before being examined by the census-takers and brought away from the Komoeties, Benjamin had never fully understood race and the role it plays in society. Of course, he could viscerally feel that he was not quite like his other siblings, even referring to himself as his mother’s “hand-child,” yet the stark delineation between black and white, seen as so self-evident by most adults, is not something that registers on the radar of a young boy. The government men are shocked to hear Benjamin call them “master” just as a black person would do; for them, racial roles are regarded as an absolute truth that can’t be challenged. But somehow, the Komoeties have succeeded in defying these boundaries. It is nothing less than traumatic for Benjamin to be told that Fiela can’t possibly be his mother. He loves her, and for him, that trumps outward distinctions in appearance. Here, we can note a theme that runs throughout the story: the arbitrary and often harmful nature of racial, ethnic, class divisions.

The backstory provided in these chapters also helps to clarify certain points about the characters and their tendencies. Most prominently, we learn about Selling’s time in jail after a thoughtless moment of rage led him to murder one of the neighbors. From this, we can better understand why Selling is in such poor health and why Fiela has had to take charge of the household responsibilities in what is still a quite patriarchal culture. Furthermore, it makes better sense why Fiela holds such resentment for the Laaghans; although Selling was the perpetrator, Fiela can’t help but associate the neighboring family with the downfall of her own. Her fantasy of buying their land speaks to her desire to make amends for the past and erase the painful memories held close to home. Moreover, as part of his prison sentence, Selling helped to work on the road that was built to connect Knysa and the Long Kloof. Thus, Selling directly contributed to the infrastructure that allowed Benjamin, supposedly, to reach the Komoeties—the same road that brought the government men who later took Benjamin away. With this detail, Dalene Matthee demonstrates the poetic interconnectedness of her characters’ fates.