Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara

Published in 1996, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is an Australian work of nonfiction by Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Aboriginal woman. The book opens with a map of southwestern Australia that marks where the rabbit-proof fence is. The map includes the route by which the government shipped three girls, kidnapped from their families, to the Moore River Native Settlement camp where they were dumped off and then the route by which the girls walked home.

The map from the book.

I know about the Stolen Generation in Australia thanks to bloggers like Bill @ The Australian Legend and Sue @ Whispering Gums. I encountered a fictional novel in which one character was an officer who removed Aboriginal children from their homes (The Silence by Susan Allott). The shocking part is not only did the Australian government remove Aboriginal children from their homes, but they did it for so long, and recently, too.

Doris Pilkington Garimara got much of the story of her mother’s, aunt’s and cousin’s removal from Jigalong when the women were in their seventies. Additionally, the author notes she did research and had to work to establish a time table, as people in Aboriginal culture do not measure time like westerners. I thought the story would focus mainly on Pilkington Garimara’s family, but it began with the perspectives of several people from different tribes. I was confused, unsure where to invest my memory as I read.

However, I did learn more about parts of the history between white foreigners/settlers and Aboriginal people. For example, Pilkington Garimara immerses the reader in the way tribal people speak, with a combo of English and non-English words:

“The wudgebulla he clever man. He got strong marbarn. He catch that jilla and keep ’em that ngubby,” said one old man, pointing at the windmill and the tank that was overflowing with water. Anyone who could capture and incarcerate the jilla, the Dreamtime spirit responsible for the creation of rivers, lakes and rockholes, must have a very powerful magic indeed.

I know what the Dreamtime spirit is thanks to Unconventional Means by Anne Richardson Williams. There is a dictionary at the end of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, if you want to check it out, but I’m always of two minds. On the one hand, many authors who use non-English words emphasize their desire to immerse English readers into the text without footnotes or calls to visit a dictionary, and now lots of writers are no longer italicizing non-English words. On the other hand, I miss a lot when I’m not in the know. One reason I love e-books is I can highlight a non-English word and translate it in the same app, such as when I read The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo. I’m doing the work, even though I know I’m interrupting the flow, but the burden is not on the author.

Pilkington Garimara is a fair writer. She acknowledges that white people in depots, such as the one at Jigalong, made Aboriginals curious, especially for the “food rations, clothing, tobacco, and blankets” that were distributed to indigenous people. A nomadic culture, finding a source of food and shelter from dangerous white people could be hard to come by, so the elders were more trusting in their hardship.

But, Pilkington Garimara also demonstrates how white people changed Australia in illogical ways, such as importing “cattle, sheep, foxes, and rabbits.” Rabbits being rabbits, they flourished, and in an attempt to keep them out of western Australia, the rabbit-proof fence was built in 1907. The fence did not work, but the government maintained the fence that ran 1,834 kilometres and had several depots along the way. I’m not 100% I understand the difference between the depots that the tribal people trusted, the ones for the fence, and the places white people would murder Aboriginal people, so if I’m incorrect in my understanding, feel free to note that in the comments.

Pilkington Garimara’s story is about three related Aboriginal girls — Molly, Gracie, Daisy — who were taken without permission from their parents from Jigalong to a settlement camp that would was viewed as more civilized than their culture and families, a way to assimilate people who were in Australia first to the white society that invaded. When they get to the camp, the girls are told they cannot speak “wangka.” Another girl who has been at the camp longer says, “We all know it’s awful . . . but we got over that.” The brainwashing begins.

Molly, the oldest of the three girls from Jigalong and the author’s mother, decides almost immediately they’re leaving. They remember the rabbit-proof fence being used as a travel guide, so she decides she and the younger two will walk all the way home following it. Pilkington Garimara demonstrates the attitude toward the girls’ escape in a letter from Arthur T. Hungerford, the designated Protector of Aborigines at the Jigalong Depot in a letter he wrote November 10, 1931 in regards to the children’s escape:

. . . even if you did fluke [the girls] now, I do not think you would ever keep them unless you separated them all or locked them up, but of course that latter course would be worse than their being in the bush I guess.

That “I guess” was so telling to me; Hungerford seems unsure if putting the girls in cages is truly worse than them walking to freedom, never considering that they might be retrieved and returned to their family — an unthinkable third option, I supposed.

I thought Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence would be a harrowing, inspirational memoir, because that’s what we expect in the U.S., but despite surviving the nine-week walk back home, the author reveals that her mother and one of the younger girls were returned to the settlement camp, and that later Pilkington Garimara was also kidnapped and sent to a similar camp. Molly’s other daughter, Annabelle, was taken as a child and never seen again. It’s a grim read, but the author never writes in such a way that you feel you can’t get through. Thus, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence serves as a trusty record of lived experience and history by an Aboriginal woman, with memories carefully recalled by her family.

21 comments

  1. I am really, really pleased that you read this. The Stolen Generations are absolutely central to Australian history, to white Australia’s history of oppressing Indigenous people, only accepted as fact in the past few years, despite having been government policy for the best part of a century.
    There are probably two things you don’t say – firstly that map is about 3,000 km (a bit less than 2,000 miles) from north to south, so these girls walked 1,200 km through desert scrub without provisions, matching many of the ‘great’ white explorers; and secondly, the children who were taken had one white parent, usually the father, and the point of the policy was to remove the children from their Black families and train them up as servants.

    Even if your US readers don’t read the book I hope they check out the movie which is heart rending.

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    • If I remember correctly, the book doesn’t mention a lot about making the children into servants. I remember learning that from your blog, though. And I do remember the emphasis on Aboriginal women having relationships with white men (again, if memory serves, these weren’t all colonial/rapist situations, but actual attraction to one another) meant that there was a “problem” people could see: mixed-race children. I got the sense that seeing white and black people having children was a biggest issue that a servant population, but I am reading Pilkingon Garimara without loads of history from other books. All the Australian books I’ve read, you’ve read my reviews. In the U.S. during slavery mix-raced children were evidence often of the slave master raping his slaves. His wife could see little children running around the plantation who looked like him with dark skin. Lighter children were often sold for me for being more “attractive.” It’s wild how different the two countries are on this matter.

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      • This is not just my home country but my home state, so I have written a bit about it (and it’s fun having you along for the ride – you must be frequently bewildered by all the unfamiliarity).

        Rape was definitely a part of it. In writing about Aboriginal massacres the story was often: white man rapes Black woman; Black close relative spears white man; white men form a raiding party and murder Black community.
        But –
        White men often claimed that their Aboriginal ‘wives’ had been given to them as gifts or payment; and I have the memoir of an Aboriginal woman who was taken as a child from up north and whose white station owner (rancher) father came down to Perth to beg unsuccessfully for her return.

        If your readers want to see more they could start at

        Aboriginal Australia

        On the other hand, I am making a very poor start at getting into Black American Lit and none at all, despite my best intentions, in US and Canadian Indigenous Lit.

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  2. Is it weird that I’m glad that you explained the rabbit proof fence? It’s not even that important to the story in the grand scheme of things but my brain needed to know so thank you.
    I say, “Goddamn white people,” on an almost weekly basis. Besides the insane history of things like this, my coworker is half Hispanic, her name is Pilar and they HAVE to comment on it all the time. She literally doesn’t wear her name tag in order to not “invite” the conversation. I once had a customer say to me, “Pilar is a good Hispanic name.” It took everything in me not to respond, “What’s a bad Hispanic name?”
    Aboriginal people are fascinating and I should really read more about them.

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    • I guessed what a rabbit proof fence might be just from knowing what a-holes they can be to gardens in Michigan, but to know what a stupid idea it was really emphasizes to way people moved to Australia with no clue about what the place was like.

      What a weird comment to your co-worker. I swear you work in some sort of heinous time warp.

      If you’re interested in reading more about Aboriginal people, I’m with Bill @ The Australian Legend. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is a good place to start. The author makes it easy to follow along, includes words in the indigenous languages (and a dictionary in the back), and it’s not super long. It doesn’t read like a history book, either. It’s got an oral tale feel to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, ooo, I’m using heinous time warp from now on when I refer to my job. Lol. There was always an asshole or two along the way but this week it’s been about 4-5 assholes per day. Which is a giant increase in assholeism. Yesterday almost broke me and I’m ready to hang up my scrubs forever at this point.
        I will definitely keep this book in mind.

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        • I wonder if you can use basically the same thing I used to say when I was teaching and students came to my office crying: “I understand you’re upset right now, but I’m going to need you to go collect yourself and come back when you’re composed.”

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  3. It’s amazing to me that on opposite sides of the world, white colonizers were doing the exact same things. The story of kidnapping children from their homes and taking them to a “civilized” place is exactly what happened with the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Why on earth do we humans think this is an okay thing to do?

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    • There has to be some kind of . . . . something that can demonstrate why everyone was doing the same thing global. Is it as simple as England really did colonize the hell out of the globe? Is history doomed to the whims of the U.K.? I have no idea and feel a bit dramatic writing this, but on the other hand, show me a country that hasn’t been negatively affected by the U.K. saying, “This is mine now.”

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      • I can’t help but agree and yet my whole life exists because of that colonization. I guess England set the example of how you should act when you get to a new place or deal with people who are different. I think it also works because too often we as humans want to believe we’re special or better than others and this type of racism allows that feeling to thrive in the worst way.

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        • The newer Australian books I’ve read have an acknowledgement section in which the (white) author says their entire existence is on stolen land. I think it’s an interesting inclusion but am not sure what to make of it. Is the statement about awareness? Are they saying they should leave Australia?

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          • Those types of acknowledgements are very common here too. Most governmental-type meetings or events will begin with a statement that they are meeting on unneeded ground belonging to whatever local group is relevant. While I think it can be an important acknowledgment I’m also not sure what it really means. No one has offered to return that land. It hasn’t really changed anyone’s behaviour. I can see how awareness is important but it isn’t enough on its own.

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            • A court case, “Mabo”, some years ago determined that all lands not covered by property titles was still in the custody of those Aboriginal groups who could demonstrate continuous occupation. So yes, care of common land, and in some cases ownership, is in the (very slow) process of being returned. Over the next half century I am sure we will see recognition in the Constitution, a Treaty, and Reparations.

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              • Part of my brain thinks, “Yes, property. Of course I want my own space and to control what happens on it.” But another part of my brain, the one that reads theory that discusses systems other than capitalism, acknowledges that “owning” land on paper is so bizarre.

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              • That’s so interesting. I don’t know if an equivalent in Canada. Some Indigenous bands have obtained self-government but I don’t know that much land has actually been returned to them. Thanks for the Australian perspective!

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          • No, I don’t think they’re saying they should leave Australia, but recognising/acknowledging who really owns the land we are on. More and more people are learning the name of the country where they live, and I’m noticing more town signs when I’m on road trips, including the country name. I live in Ngunnawal Country, and in fact, just today, I decided to add that to the banner on my blog.

            I enjoyed your review. I love how you tackle what you read. I don’t think I can add anything much, given Bill’s excellent response. I’m embarrassed to say that I remember the film more than the book, probably because I saw the film first. It was one of the first big works of popular culture to bring the story to the wider public.

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  4. Oh, so sad. I like hearing about the Australian perspective, but again, its so horrifying to know this kind of racism just seemed to reach every corner of the globe. My god, it’s just hard to fathom how living with this history and knowledge must affect Indigenous people today.

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