Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
|Publisher||University of Queensland Press|
|Followed by||Under the Wintamarra Tree|
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is an Australian book by Doris Pilkington. Based on a true story, the book is a personal account of an indigenous Australian family's experiences as members of the "Stolen Generation" – the forced removal of mixed-race children from their families during the early 20th century. It tells the story of three young Aboriginal girls: Molly (the author's mother), Daisy (Molly's sister) and their cousin Gracie, who escape from a government settlement in 1931 and trek over 2,400 kilometres (1,500 mi) home by following the Rabbit-proof fence, a massive pest-exclusion fence which crossed Western Australia from north to south.
Doris Pilkington had spent much of her early life from the age of four at the Moore River Native Settlement in Western Australia, the same facility the book chronicles her mother escaping from as a child. After re-uniting with her family, Pilkington says she did not talk to her mother much, and she was not aware of her mother's captivity at Moore River, or the story of their escape, until her Aunt Daisy told her the story. Repeating the story at an Aboriginal family history event in Perth, one of the attendees told her he was aware of the story and that the case was fairly well-documented. He gave her some documents and clippings which formed the factual backbone of the story on which Pilkington based a first draft.
She submitted the draft to a publisher in 1985, but was told it was too much like an academic paper, and that she should try her hand at writing fiction. Her first novel, Caprice, A Stockman's Daughter, won the David Unaipon Literary Award and was published in 1990 by the University of Queensland Press. Pilkington then rewrote and filled out Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence following several years of interviewing her mother and aunt, and it was published in 1996.
The book tells the story of Molly Craig, a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl, who is deemed "half-caste" by the Australian government. Along with two members of her family, her 8 -year-old sister Daisy Craig and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie Fields, Molly is taken by police officers from her mother in the community of Jigalong and transported 1,600 kilometers to the Moore River Native Settlement. In 1931, the three girls escape from Moore River, and with no maps or compasses, they use the immense State Barrier Fence which crosses Western Australia to navigate home.
Chapter 1 | The First Military Post
The first chapter of “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” begins with a historical description of when the English first arrived on the shores of Western Australia. The Aboriginal men who lived in Nyungar, Western Australia, mistrusted the English since members of their families had been shot by white raiders and the English had kidnapped Aboriginal women and kept them as sexual slaves. Kundilla, the leader of one Aboriginal camp with about sixty members, notices that the first British discoverers were not intent on causing harm. In 1826 Major Edmund Lockyer was sent to establish a military base with the aim to deter convicts, whalers and sealers and this first military outpost lasted five years. During that time the English felt isolated and lonely because of the unknown land area. “Each day at Albany had been an ordeal for the Europeans”, describes the author. Doris Pilkington focuses in her first chapter on the history of Australia and gives background information which might be helpful to understand the whole story of “The Rabbit-Proof Fence”.
Chapter 2 | The Swan River Colony
In the second chapter Pilkington explains how the first European settlers arrived in June 1829. Yellagonga, a leader of an Aboriginal camp, tells how Dayub, who is another leader, was invited to visit the European settlers. Captain Fremantle needed the approval of the Aborigines to give their country an English name. Dayub and the other Aboriginal men had language issues and could not understand what Fremantle was saying. Even though the Aborigines did not give actual consent, the Captain named their land “Western Australia”. After Yellagonga finished his story he observes the first settlers near the river. Captain Fremantle took possession of one million square miles of territorial land and named it “Swan River Colony”. The settlers were not satisfied with the land and wilderness at first. “We should never have come”, says one of the settlers.
Chapter 3 | The Decline of Aboriginal Society
Doris Pilkington describes how dominant and powerful the settlers became in 1830. The European settlers have the right to choose any area where they want to live, restricting Aboriginal freedom. In order to remain an English country, the settlers are advised to “keep up their Englishness” e.g. preserve English culture and traditions such as fox hunts and teatime. The European settlers intend the destruction of the Aboriginal population and society and dispossession of their land. The Aborigines learn too late that “the white men” are also merely human beings and not spirits. Unending conflicts start with killings on both sides. The white settlers fight with muskets, swords and guns, whereas the Aborigines answer with spears. Over time the Aborigines learn to acknowledge the white men and are forced to accept the white system of justice. The Aboriginal social structure is completely ruined. Pilkington sums the whole situation up with the strong statement “The Nyungar people who once walked tall and proud, now hung their head in sorrow”.
Chapter 4 | From the Deserts They Came
During the 1900s the Aborigines become more integrated into the European society in Australia. Certain camps for Aboriginal people were built and the settlers considered Aboriginal men as excellent horsemen and cattlemen. Occasionally they are confrontations between Mardu people (traditional people) and the white settlers. Pilkington describes how one Aboriginal man tries to steal a cow from a white settler because he and his family in the desert are starving. The settler notices him and shoots him directly. “Just a blackfella” is what he says to his friend after killing the Aboriginal man. The Aborigines from the desert travel to various camps which were built for Aboriginal people. In these camps the Aboriginal tradition and culture is prohibited e.g. “they tell us we gotta cover everything up, the wudgebulla (white men) don´t like to see neked (naked) fullah (people)”. Ruppi and his family stayed two months at a camp when they decided to continue their journey to Jigalong, North Australia. They are among the first people who settle at Jigalong.
Chapter 5 | Jigalong, 1907-1931
Maude is a girl who lives at the government depot in Jigalong. When she was a baby she was engaged to an Aboriginal man, but as Maude grew up her promised man wanted to marry her cousin instead, which was a relief for Maude. She was only sixteen years old and wished that things would never change. She described herself as “the luckiest girl of her age”. She had brains and worked as domestic help for the Superintendent at the depot, Mr. Hawkins. She quickly learned to speak the English language. One day her mother noticed that she was expecting a baby. Her mother was relieved to hear that she had not broken any kinship laws because the child´s father was Thomas Craig, an Englishman who works as an inspector of the rabbit-proof fence. After Maude gave birth her aunt said: “It´s a wandi, a muda-muda wandi” which means that the child is a half-caste girl. The reader is given an insight into Aboriginal traditions and rituals e.g. when the aunt calls the newborn baby “ugly child” to protect it from evil spirits. Craig, the child´s father, called her Molly. Molly was the first half-caste child amongst the Jigalong people. She was considered by their family as a pretty little girl, but other children insulted her because of her light skin, which made her wish to have dark skin. Two of her aunts were expecting babies who were half-caste as well, which was thrilling to Molly. First, Daisy was born, followed by Gracie. The three half-caste girls became inseparable. Mr. Keeling, who was a worker at the depot, became interested in the three girls. He observed the attitude of the other Aboriginal children towards the three girls. He wrote to the Department of Native Affairs in Perth advising them that the three girls would be better off if they were removed from Jigalong. The Western Australian government had established two institutions for Aboriginal children with white fathers. It was a common belief that half-caste children were more intelligent than their darker relations and should be isolated and trained to be domestic servants. Patrol officers travelled throughout the country to remove the “part-Aboriginal children” from their families and take them to the special institutions which are far away. In June 1930, Constable Riggs, who is a “Protector of Aborigines”, arrives at the depot to take Molly, Gracie and Daisy away to the “Moore River Native Settlement” in Perth. Their mothers are heart-broken. The three girls cry uncontrollably. Riggs justifies his doing with believing that “they will grow up with a better outlook on life than back at their camp”. Not even the white fathers are able to prevent the removal of their daughters.
Chapter 6| The Journey South
Constable Riggs, who has taken Molly, Daisy and Gracie away from their families, starts the journey by car. He hands the girls over to Constable Melrose. Two other half-caste girls have joined them. They start traveling by train after sleeping a night at a police station. The girls are handed over to the friendly stewardess Gwen Campbell. She works on a ship. Molly, Daisy and Gracie remain timid, even though the stewardess and other members of the ship are being gently. They are sailing for five days until they arrive at the Port of Fremantle. “The girls had never seen so many white men in the one place before”, describes Pilkington underlining the shyness and strangeness. While the girls are driving with Matron Campbell through the city, the girls get “interested and amazed like tourists”, but still “the city was for them a noisy and unfriendly place”. After travelling in total more than hundreds of kilometers, the girls arrive at the Moore River Native Settlement.
Chapter 7 | The Moore River Native Settlement, 1931
Molly, Daisy and Gracie get welcomed by Miss Evans who is the staff member of the dorms. Miss Evans shows them where they will be sleeping. The first night at the Settlement, the three girls cuddle all together in a single bed because of the coldness. They are really shy and do not know what they will experience here. A girl from the dorms shows them around the next day. She says that they will get used to the things here. Molly does not like the place. “It´s like a gaol”, compares Molly because their rooms have bars across the windows. Martha guides them around the entire area. Molly is convinced that this place is a “marbu country” which means a country where flesh-eating spirits are living. She concludes that they cannot stay here. Martha explains them that girls tried to escape, but they all got caught and punished hardly. The circumstances at the settlement are paltry. At the end of the chapter, the three girls are lying on their beds and suddenly know that they must escape from that place.
Chapter 8 | The Escape
Molly, who takes the role as their leader, decides that they will be walking all the way back to Jigalong by foot. Instead of going to school, they leave the settlement and walk quickly through the wilderness. “It´s a long way from home”, explains Daisy. Their goal is it to find the rabbit-proof fence and to follow it all the way back to Jigalong. Daisy and Gracie have the confidence in Molly´s ability to bring them home. Molly always is the bossy one who makes the decisions. Pilkington starts to explain their journey through the wilderness and describes what the girls experience. They start walking through the bush. After crossing a river they think that in front of them is standing a “marbu” (flesh-eating spirit) what makes them scared. However, they continue their journey. They stay the first night in a rabbit burrow. The next day Gracie has her first doubts. She is starving and does not want to die. She is already tired of merely eating bread and water. They proceed and notice a plethora of rabbits which they catch and eat. The rain washes all their tracks away. One day they are hidden and observe a search plane which has been sent out to look for them. The three girls reach a farm where a courteous woman gives them food. After the girls continue their journey, the woman thinks that the girls are not going to survive in the risky wilderness. Therefore she reports them to the police. The missing of the girls and their attempt to walk back home has already gone to the news. Molly, Daisy and Gracie do not know how popular their case is. They continue begging for food at other farms. Because of their long walks, they have gotten scratches at their legs which get infected. They try to solve the problem by carrying each other in turns. Eventually Molly finds the rabbit-proof fence which is the first excitement for the girls. Molly´s father, who is an inspector of the fence, told her all about it. “We found the fence now. It's gonna be easy”. This statement gives hope to Molly, Daisy and Gracie, even though they have a lot more to walk. The police desperately try to find the girls. They have been on the run for five weeks now. Gracie hears from a woman that her mother is in Wiluna and not in Jigalong anymore what makes her decide to leave them and to take the train to Wiluna. Molly and Daisy find it really hard to accept her decision, but finally agree. Daisy wakes up the next morning and gets noticed by a young man who wants to get the police. Daisy throws stones at him what makes him go away. After nine weeks of walking, they arrive at Jigalong and are reunited with their family.
Chapter 9 | What Happened to Them? Where are They Now?
Pilkington explains what happens to all of the girls after the long journey. She starts off with Molly who is employed as a domestic help and marries Toby Keller. She has two daughters. Molly was transported all the way back to the Moore River Native Settlement in 1940. Her permission to return was refused, which makes her decide to walk all the way back to Jigalong again. She follows the route which she had taken nine years earlier. Gracie was captured at Wiluna and transported back to the Moore River Settlement as well. There she completes her education and gets sent out to work as a domestic help. Gracie never returned to Jigalong. Daisy, on the other hand, stayed with her family and was trained to be a housemaid.
Shortly after the book's publication, the film rights were obtained by scriptwriter Christine Olsen, who wrote the script and was persistent in her pitching of the film to Hollywood-based Australian director Phillip Noyce. Noyce agreed to direct the film, which was released in 2002 and starred Everlyn Sampi as Molly, and British actor Kenneth Branagh as A. O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines.