Dalene Matthee

Fiela’s Child

  • 29-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 32 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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Fiela’s Child Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 29-page guide for “Fiela’s Child” by Dalene Matthee includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Wrong People in Power and Systematized Racism.

Plot Summary

Fiela’s Child is a work of fiction by award-winning South African writer Dalene Matthee. It is one installment of a four-part series known as the Forest Books. This popular series takes the Knysna Forest and its indigenous landscape as its subject, and is infused with Matthee’s own meticulous research that she managed to compile while hiking in the forest and its surrounding trails.

The narrative is set in rural South Africa, in the nineteenth century. Specifically, it follows the complex story of Fiela Komoetie during the 1860s and 1870s. Fiela is a black South African, and fills her days busying herself with her own family and farm. Indeed, having her own farm is a big deal for a black South African, and due to the fact that her husband is sick, Fiela must look after the farm and the children.

One day, Fiela finds a crying child on her doorstep. From all appearances, it seems that the child, who is white, has been abandoned. Though burdened already with daily matters and a family of her own, Fiela takes the child in, and for nine years, she raises the child, whom she names Benjamin, as one of her own children. Indeed, Benjamin comes to receive an “education” from Fiela and his new life that he would have never received had he been living with a white family. He learns to love the open land of the Long Kloof region, and to love its people as well, regardless of color. Moreover, Fiela genuinely loves Benjamin as her own child, and Benjamin loves his adopted family, fitting in without any qualms related to skin color.

Fiela and Benjamin’s lives soon change, however, when what Fiela has been dreading for some time suddenly comes to pass. Though she is taking care of Benjamin, he is not technically her child, and she knows that he can be taken away from her at any time. To this end, census takers arrive one day and find Benjamin in Fiela’s care. Though she is determined to fight for Benjamin, she has no say when they determine he should be removed from her care. Though he has been raised by Fiela for nine years, the census takers send Benjamin instead to an illiterate white family of nearby woodcutters. The family claims that Benjamin is actually their long-lost son who wandered off nine years earlier. Neither Benjamin nor Fiela have a voice in the matter, and Benjamin must now come to terms with living with the white family that has claimed him while also trying to come of age and identify with two different cultures.

Benjamin has to now deal with the confining nature of the forest, which is a stark contrast to his life in the Long Kloof region. Moreover, Benjamin must also deal with the fact that while with the woodcutters, his name is changed to Lukas Van Rooyen, thus causing him to try and accept/identify with a new identity altogether. Into this mix of identity, Benjamin finds that he also has romantic feelings developing for Nina, a beautiful girl who may be his sister if the Van Rooyen’s assertions of his origins are correct. In the end, Benjamin is unable to accept this change, and sets out to escape his confinement in white society. His journey and the consequences of his actions are inconsequential to Benjamin, who longs for nothing more than the freedom of choice and place. More than freedom, Benjamin longs for Fiela, the mother who has raised him and who has shown him a unique way of approaching the world.

Fiela’s Child is ultimately a story of love and family. Through Fiela and Benjamin’s relationship, Matthee shows that love can indeed transcend color lines. Despite the worldviews that are passed down or thrust upon the individual, people can choose to love and, in doing so, show the power of good as it triumphs over inhumane power hierarchies and institutionalized racism. Benjamin’s journey also highlights the confusing narrative of young adults’ own lives at times. Coming-of-age often entails conflicting emotions and states of being, including everything from identity worth and the politics of place to family and romantic love. Benjamin’s navigation of these areas while growing up in the 1860s and 1870s during a time of racial tension is just as prevalent today as it was in nineteenth-century South Africa.

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Chapters 1-4