On a foggy day in 1865, 3-year-old Lukas van Rooyen disappears. For eight days, his parents Elias and Barta and their neighbors search the dense forest of Kom's Bush near the southern tip of South Africa. The child is not to be found.
At about the same time, many miles away, in the mountain gorge known as Long Kloof, Fiela Komoetie, a Colored woman, is awakened by the sound of a child crying. She opens the back door of her farmhouse to find a neatly dressed white boy whose age, she judges, is about 3. The child is unable to tell her anything about how he got there, and Fiela concludes he has been abandoned by his mother and left for her to raise. She names him Benjamin and calls him her hand-child, likening him to the lamb that has to be hand-fed when it is rejected by the ewe.
For the next nine years, Benjamin grows up as a member of the Komoetie family. Then comes the day when two census takers arrive in the Kloof and refuse to believe Fiela's story of how this white boy had come to her. One of the men, who remembers that a boy from Kom's Bush had been lost nine years earlier, brings his suspicions to the regional magistrate at Knysna. Summoned to appear before the magistrate, Fiela and Benjamin are confronted by Barta van Rooyen, who identifies the boy as her missing Lukas. Despite Fiela's protests that no 3-year-old could have crossed the mountains that separated Kom's Bush from the Long Kloof, Benjamin is awarded to the van Rooyens and, at age 12, finds himself with a new name, a new family and a harsh new life.
The mystery of the boy's identity is the central theme of Dalene Matthee's engagingly old-fashioned novel, which follows Benjamin/Lukas to manhood. Set in a time and place unfamiliar to American readers, "Fiela's Child" portrays characters who linger in memory: the indomitable Fiela, who must bow to the magistrate's decision but never gives up her conviction that it was wrong; the tyrannical Elias, who will resort to every kind of trickery to obtain the elephant tusks that can enrich him; the capricious Nina, a child of nature reminiscent of Rima the bird girl in W.H. Hudson's "Green Mansions."
Matthee, a popular South African writer, has immersed herself in the culture, folkways, speech patterns and economic life of her country in the mid-19th century. We learn about the forest people's respect for, and fear of, the elephants who inhabit the forest. When the grown-up Lukas leaves the forest to discover the sea, we are told in absorbing detail how sailing vessels are piloted through the treacherous rocks that block the harbor. Adventures aplenty keep the reader turning pages. One of the most moving is the account of how the intrepid Fiela seeks out her husband on the chain gang.
The author's acknowledgments suggest that her novel is based on an actual event. She has adapted that event into a stirring tale, skillfully told.