CIRCLES IN A FOREST by Dalene Matthee
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In her first novel in English, Afrikaans writer Matthee vividly (if sometimes heavyhandedly) dramatizes the late-19th-century plight of the most Africanized, least ""civilized"" Dutch settlers in South Africa--the woodcutters of the dense Knysna Forest, exploited by the British and hamstrung by their own narrow traditions. In 1889, 29-year-old Saul Barnard--woodcutter's son, self-made man--is about to leave Africa forever when he hears that Old Foot, the Forest's ancient elephant, is being stalked by cruel hunter Fred Terblans. . . because Old Foot supposedly gored a child (Saul's nephew, as it happens) to death. So Saul vows that he himself, before departing, will find and shoot his soulmate Old Foot mercifully, ""to save him the humiliation of falling to Terblans' gun."" And, while Saul sets out on this expedition back into the Forest, Matthee slowly fills in his life story--beginning at age 14, when Saul first feels this kinship with Old Foot, a fabled creature feared and hated by all the other tribe-like Forest people. Soon, in fact, teenager Saul finds himself at odds with nearly all the woodcutter ways. He argues with his stern, overworked father about conservation. He scorns Forest superstitions. He rages over the victimization of the passive woodcutters by Mr. MacDonald, the trader in the nearest village, who cheats the cutters and keeps them in debt: ""Life was a crooked circle. The woodcutter killed the Forest, the wood-buyer killed the woodcutter."" Then, turned out by his father (""If an axe won't cut and can't be sharpened either, you throw it away""), Saul goes to work as despised yard-boy for the foul MacDonald; he falls in love with spunky young Kate MacDonald, who teaches him to read English; he is unfairly branded a traitor by all his woodcutter kin. And when a government man comes looking for gold in the Forest, it's an up-and-coming Saul who guides this comically claustrophobic prospector through the dangerous terrain. But, while Saul's quickness soon leads him to a fortune in panned gold, his larger goals--for the Forest, for his people--are doomed: Saul's stubborn, backward family refuses to follow his gold-mining lead; he vainly fights gold-rush fever for the sake of ecology. And his love for Kate is thwarted by prejudice and greed. . . until the creaky, uplift/happy ending. Despite similar weaknesses throughout (an over-noble Dickensian hero, over-emphatic themes and symbols): strong, evocative historical fiction, with the culture and the landscape and the issues all in powerful focus.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf