Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara is the true story of the author's mother, Molly. In 1931, Molly, aged about 15 years of age and her younger sisters Gracie and Daisy, about 12 and 11 years,* were removed from their remote Aboriginal community at Jigalong in the north-west of Western Australia and taken to the Native Settlement at Moore River, north of Perth.
(*There's some discrepancy in the girl's ages as their births were not registered.)
The first three chapters of Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence sketch a picture of the early days of white settlement in Western Australia in which a military outpost was established at Albany and the Swan River Colony was founded at Fremantle.
By the 1900's the boundaries of white settlement were extended and government policies were introduced that allowed large areas of land to be claimed by farmers and pastoralists. No provision was made for the traditional landowners which meant that the Aboriginal people in those areas became dispossessed of their traditional lands, and therefore their social structures.
In 1907, Jigalong, in the Pilbara region, was established as a government depot and base for the men who maintained the rabbit-proof fence. The Superintendent of the depot was also the Protector of Aborigines for the area. It was into this community that the first 'half-caste' (muda-muda) baby to be seen amongst the Jigalong people was born to a 16 year old Aboriginal girl named Maude. The baby's father was a white maintenance inspector, Thomas Craig.
Molly grew into a pretty little girl. Her mother was very proud of her and her father brought her gifts of clothing and pretty coloured ribbons...
As she grew older, Molly often wished that she didn't have light skin so that she didn't have to play by herself...The Mardu children insulted her and said hurtful things about her. Some told her that because she was neither Mardi or wudgebulla (white man) she was like a mongrel dog.
One morning, when Molly was about four years old, her mother told her some exciting news. Two of her aunties had babies, little girls and they were both muda-mudas like her.
At this time, the Chief Protector of Aborigines was the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child in Western Australia up to the age of 16 years, and he had the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families and place them in Homes or in 'service' (work).
The Superintendent at Jigalong had been taking a great deal of interest in Mollie and Gracie and he noticed that the attitude of the Mardi children towards the girls was unfair and reported the situation to the Department of Native Affairs in Perth saying that the girls would be better off if they were removed from Jigalong.
The common belief at the time was that part-Aboriginal children were more intelligent than their darker relations and should be isolated and trained to be domestic servants and labourers. Policies were introduced by the government in an effort to improve the welfare and educational needs of these children. Molly, Gracie and Daisy were completely unaware that they were to be included in the schemes designed for children who were fathered by white men.
When Molly was about 14 or 15 years of age, the Protector of Aborigines came to their camp to announce that he had come to take the three girls down to the school at the Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth. A car and a train ride took them to Port Hedland and from there a ship conveyed them to the Port of Fremantle. They were then transported by car to Moore River.
It was intended that this would be their home for several years, and where they would be educated in European ways.
Only twelve months before this...the Superintendent at the Government Depot at Jigalong, wrote in his report that, "these children lean more towards the black than white and on second thoughts, think nothing would be gained in removing them."
Someone read it. No one responded.
The girls had only been two nights at the settlement when Molly made up her mind that they were not going to stay. On the morning of what was to be their first day of school, Molly announced to her sisters that they were going home. They would find the rabbit-proof fence and follow it all the way to Jigalong. Molly's father had told her the fence stretched from coast to coast, south to north across the country, and though stupefied by the idea at first, the two girls trusted their older sister and said they would run away with her.
Barefoot, wearing two dresses and two pairs of bloomers each, with no food, maps, or supplies, they made their dash for freedom in the rain.
Almost nine weeks and 1500 miles later, two of the girls returned home to Jigalong having avoided capture by police, an Aboriginal tracker, and a plane search in the course of their travels.
The author made use of oral and archival records to reconstruct the events of her narrative: interviews with Molly and Daisy who were in their late sixties and seventies when the book was written, and records of geographical and botanical explorations of the area, for example. There were so many factors that had to be taken into account by the author, not least the fact that the Aboriginals used the seasons, incidents and events to measure time, not dates and numbers. Illiteracy and lack of numeracy skills were major obstacles to be overcome before the events of the story could be determined. However, the author managed to accomplish this daunting task and write a compelling, heartfelt, and vivid account of this incredible episode in Australia's history.
The book was published in 1996 and the film based on the book - 'Rabbit Proof Fence' was released in 2002. The film departs from the book in places and having read the book, I think it was a more powerful story than the film as it focussed on what actually happened rather than trying to make a political statement.
Any discussion of the 'Stolen Generation' opens a massive can of worms and I spent a lot of time reading various articles and thinking back on the time my family spent in the Pilbara region when I was a child in the 1970's.
The school we attended was separate from the Aboriginal school situated almost next door where 'full blood' Aboriginals were taught in their native language. The 'mixed blood' kids were in with the rest of us and didn't identify at all with those in the other school. We lived next door to an Aboriginal family and I was good friends with their daughter. We didn't consider them to be any different to us any more than if they had been Italian or Greek.
My mum doesn't have a racist bone in her body. Her stepfather was a Pakistani and married my Grannie after he moved to Scotland around the time of Partition, I think. Inter-racial marriage was very unusual at the time and mum had a terrible time at school because she had a black dad, so she was sensitive to this type of treatment. However, when we moved to Australia and eventually went to the Pilbara region for dad's work, I remember mum commenting with disgust on seeing Aboriginal men in the pub spending their welfare cheques on alcohol while their wives and children sat around outside, sometimes getting into fights, and often leaving young children to their own devices.
The prominent and respected Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, has said that more should be done to empower Indigenous communities, and thinking back to my own experiences I can see the truth in what he is saying. While I believe that there is a definite place and need for acknowledgment and redress of past injustices, it can't be at the expense of fixing today's problems. However, the truth remains that it's not a simple issue and there is no simple solution.
The book is recommended for Year 9 students but it could be saved for a later year so that some of these very important issues could be explored when the student is more mature. Chronologically, it fits into Year 10/11 of Ambleside Online but regardless of that, it's one of those important topics that needs to be covered in a balanced way by Australian students.
This unabridged audio narrated by Rachael Maza is excellent and her Torres Strait Island background gives an authentic and intimate feel to the story:
Linking up with Brona's Books for the AusReading Month