By the 1900s, Western Australia is shaping up to be a prosperous settlement, especially in terms of mining and agriculture. As the white settlements flourish, they are allowed to expand farther into the countryside, wiping out even more Aboriginal land. Soon, all arable land in the south-west, as well as the coastal areas to the north of Perth, are occupied by white settlers. The original inhabitants of this land, the Mardudjara, are completely discounted as white settlers encroach deeper and deeper into their territory.
As Western Australia thrives, the settlers’ power continues to increase. Not only do they have superior weaponry and practical means to subjugate the Aboriginals, but they have now established farms and mines, giving them greater leverage to continue on their path of decimation and desecration of Aboriginal land.
Pilkington writes that several tribes compose the Mardudjara people, but all are referred to as Mardu after their common language. Most Mardu people have been trained by white station owners to work as stockpeople or domestic help, and Pilkington writes that the Mardu saw this work as “a form of kindness” done unto them by their white colonizers. Still, violence against Aboriginal people—assault, rape, and even murder—are common, and any Aboriginal retaliation is met with even further, more despicable violence, as the white men still have superior weaponry.
Although Aboriginal attitudes toward white colonizers have shifted somewhat in certain parts of Western Australia, the white settlers’ abuse of Aboriginals remains rampant and systemic. The roots of colonialism grow deeper and deeper into Australia with each passing year.
Many Mardu begin to move south, away from their ancestral lands, to the Jigalong Aboriginal community. Even further into the bush, white settlers and cattle drivers reign, and continue to decimate the food supply that the migrating Mardu people need to survive on their journeys. When one man steals a young steer from a group of white cattle drivers, he is executed at gunpoint.
Even as the Mardu people seek shelter away from their homelands, the violence of colonialism and the cruelty of their oppressors make the task of finding a new homeland a difficult and dangerous one. Desperate to ensure the survival of their culture and traditions, the dispossessed Mardu risk everything in order to reclaim their identities.
The Mardu people—desert nomads used to traveling the bush—are forced to change their methods of travel as the roads become full of hostile white settlers. Some Mardus, making their way to Jigalong, encounter what they believe to be a “marbu”—a dangerous, flesh-eating spirit—but are surprised to discover it is just a man who is “neither black nor white”—he is a muda-muda, or a half-caste, born to a white man and an Aboriginal mother. The half-caste man leads the desert nomads to a nearby station, where they settle and begin learning how to prepare “white man’s food.” The nomads learn that they must clothe their naked bodies in the presence of white settlers, and are “baffled” by the custom.
As the nomads set out on their journey to find a place in which they can safely practice their own way of life—reclaiming their cultural identity in the process—they are confronted with the new reality of their world. Many Aboriginal people have been assimilated into white culture, and the Mardu, too, will need to learn how to do so—at least to some extent—if they wish to survive in a world now completely dominated by white men.
After two months, the group of nomads decides to move on—they plan to walk east, to the rabbit-proof fence, and then continue to the government outpost at Jigalong, where they know other members of their tribe have sought safety and protection now that their desert has been compromised by the white settlers.
The Mardu continue on, using the fence as a marker, having now learned about white customs and traditions but still determined to reclaim their own culture, and find a land that they can once again call their own.
As the group moves through the desert, they encounter another group of six Mardu nomads, and the two groups eat together and trade stories about the “terrible events” that have frightened Mardu people all throughout the desert—the white men using their powerful guns to decimate the food supply and torment Aboriginals. In the morning, the new group of nomads decides to head for Jigalong, too, in order to ensure their own safety.
As the Mardu who have learned more about their white colonizers’ culture and customs encounter several other members of their tribe who have not, they warn them of the new precedent which rules throughout the land and the need to seek shelter in a new, hopefully safe place.
The two groups walk for several days along the rabbit-proof fence, all the way to Jigalong. That night the new group of Mardus are introduced to “civilization,” and they too learn about white man’s food and clothing. They also come to learn about the strange imported animals that the white men have brought to their land—cattle, sheep, foxes, horses, and rabbits.
Pilkington describes yet another group of Mardu people’s exposure to white culture and customs. They learn about the imported species that white colonizers have brought to Australia—some of them invasive, much like the colonizers themselves.
Pilkington explains that rabbits in particular thrived and multiplied at such an alarming rate in Australia that the government, in 1907, constructed a rabbit-proof fence, which ran north-to-south through Western Australia, and attempted to keep the invasion of rabbits into Western Australia from the east at bay. The fence proved useless, as there were already more rabbits on the Western Australian side of the fence than on the other side.
The rabbit-proof fence will serve as a symbol throughout the text of the senseless and careless way the Australians have colonized the continent. Their culture has been invasive, has given rise to unintended consequences, and they have subsequently done all they can to eradicate anything that displeases them. Their treatment of the rabbits in some ways mirrors their dehumanizing treatment of the Aboriginals themselves.
The nomads reach Jigalong, and one of the women in the group, Minden, gives birth to a daughter named Maude. Pilkington writes that Maude grows up in a “warm, loving environment,” playing with relatives in nearby camps and exploring the wilderness around her.
Pilkington introduces the character of her grandmother, Maude, as part of a new generation who will grow up never having known what it was like to live without the influence of racism and colonization.