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.
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.