Dalene Matthee is a beloved Afrikaans South African author of a number of hugely successful books that have been translated into 14 languages, including English. When I was in high school we read the first of her forest books in Afrikaans class and I fell in love with it. It was called Kringe in n Bos (Circles in a Forest) and was an absolutely magical book about the elephants of Knysna forest, particularly one elephant named Oupoot. I have not read her books in English but I’m sure they are equally as beautiful as her original Afrikaans ones for those interested in giving her books a try.
Matthee was born in Riversdale, South Africa in 1938. Her first novel was inspired by the Outeniqua hiking trip she took in Knysna. After much research into these indigenous forests she gathered enough material for four books; Circles in a Forest (Kringe in n Bos), Fiela’s Child (Fiela se Kind), The Mulberry Forest (Moerbeibos), and Dream Forest (Toorbos). She is the only South African author to have sold over one million Afrikaans books.
Circles in a Forest
“Saul Barnard is a woodcutter with a restless soul – he wants to keep strangers away from the Forest and stop the destruction of the Forest. There is also the legendary elephant bull – Old Foot – which broke free from his herd. Old Foot and Saul share a strange bond … In the green duskiness of the Outeniqua they walk on circular paths. Saul Barnard, rejected by his people and humiliated by unscrupulous timber merchants; Old Foot, relentlessly followed by hunters. A man and his animal brother – together in an untouched ancient forest that is being destroyed by gold diggers, woodcutters and other eradicators. Saul follows Old Foot’s tracks, closer and closer to the truth that will change his life forever.”
“God forgives many things, but God never forgives us the wrong we do to a child. On the one side of the mountain, in the Long Kloof, there’s Fiela Komoetie, devoted to her foundling – the child God entrusted to her one night when she found the three-year-old boy crying on her doorstep – a castaway lamb. On the other side of the mountain, in the Forest, there are the Van Rooyens. Many years ago, the three-year-old son of Elias van Rooyen, a woodcutter, and his wife Barta disappeared … The one child is Benjamin Komoetie, the other Lukas van Rooyen. Are they the same child? Was it possible for such a small child to walk that far – from the Forest to the Long Kloof? Nine years later, two census men, travelling through the Long Kloof and discovering the white child with the blue eyes among Coloured people, decided to take matters into their own hands. And many years later, this is the question that Benjamin/Lukas is asking himself: Who am I? He had to know, otherwise the woman that he came to love would never belong to him. The answer was there, he knew. Somewhere deep inside himself, hidden in the past, but the answer remained evasive.”
The Mulberry Forest
“Silkworm farmers from Italy were lured to Gouna in the Knysna Forest to establish a silk industry. The only problem was that mulberry trees refused to grow in sticky mud. Disgruntled immigrants had to battle severe winter rains, fever and a lack of understanding. They were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the government dumping them in the wilderness under false pretences. The man coming their rescue was a forest person with an unruly daughter and a head full of plans – the headstrong Silas Miggel. He wanted to get them back on board a ship, heading for Italy…”
“Dreamforest (Toorbos) is forest novel. It tells the story between the intimate relationship of an initiated “forest woman” and the heart of the forest, and how it becomes an obstacle in her experience of the man she loves. Karoliena Kapp is an only child of an unsympathetic mother who has had three men. Her father has been killed by a streak of lightning while she was still young, causing her to accept the forest as her primordial mother. Karoliena is beautiful. Soon, she was spotted by a man, Johannes, child of a woodcutter, who freed himself from the stranglehold of poverty in the forest. Before she even turns twenty, Karoliena is married to Johannes. Now she has to take on the role of spouse in the village after being coached to take her place in the hierarchy. The world of the forest and the world of the village are juxtaposed with each other – each representing a different order of existence. The forest makes a mystical experience possible – this is the kind of ecstasy Karoliena is looking for – while life in the village is dedicated to the self-directed search for money. She is in love with Johannes who is far older than she is and is almost spellbound by the prospects he offers her. However, Karoliena uses the very first opportunity to run away from Johannes – straight back to the forest. Because the very first day after their wedding ceremony she knew something was terribly wrong. She made the wrong choice: she fled from the forest. She exchanged her precious freedom for a cage. Now she’s scared. So, she returns to the forest while the Cape sisken keeps on calling: “who are you, who are you”.”
As I already mentioned Matthee was inspired to write her forest books after hiking through an area of the Knysna forest and wondering what had happened to the Knysna elephants. Today you can visit the area in the Garden Route of South Africa and do either a 3km or a 9km hike through what has been named the Circle in a Forest route in one of South Africa’s National Reserves. Matthee passed away in 2005 but leaves behind a treasury of South African fiction for all to enjoy that takes a look at our country from a nature perspective rather than the more common political perspective. I highly recommend her novels.
Have you read any of her novels? What did you think?