Jigalong, a government depot established in 1907, was used as a base for the maintenance men charged with attending to the rabbit-proof fence and keeping it clear of brush, debris, and dead animals. The Superintendent of the Jigalong Depot also carries the title of “Protector of Aborigines.” All Mardu people who come in to Jigalong from the desert are given food rations, clothing, tobacco, and blankets, and so the depot slowly begins to “arouse the curiosity” of nomadic people nearby. Many are sick and tired of struggling to find food in the bush, and long for a place they can sleep at night without fear of being attacked by white men.
Pilkington frames Jigalong as a refuge of sorts from the danger that now exists all through the Australian outback in the form of white colonizers who prey upon Aboriginals. At the same time, Jigalong—safe as it seems—is in many ways directly under the influence and the watchful eyes of the Australian government. Pilkington is essentially saying that nowhere is safe anymore from the influence of colonization.
By the 1930s, Jigalong has grown steadily, and has been deemed a base camp for secret and sacred rituals and ceremonies by tribal elders. The Mardu develop a semi-nomadic lifestyle, staying on the outskirts of the depot and hunting on the weekends to supplement their government-rationed food supply.
Despite the fact that Jigalong is a government outpost, the Mardu are able to make lives for themselves that at least echo their cultural traditions and important rituals, such as hunting and eating communally.
Maude is betrothed to an older man from her tribe, but her betrothed tells the elders that he does not want to marry Maude. Maude is secretly pleased, and glad to not be married off to someone older. Maude likes her life as it is. She has been trained to work as a domestic helper for the Superintendent at the depot, Mr. Keeling, and is known in Jigalong as a bright, reliable, and intelligent girl.
Maude, who secretly delights in being passed over for traditional marriage and who thrives as a domestic worker for a government official, has shirked her ancient cultural tradition and is operating according to the new “world order” at Jigalong—in which Aboriginals and white Australians live and work in closer proximity than either would like.
One day Maude’s mother notices that her daughter’s light cotton shirt seems stretched tight around her belly, and realizes that her daughter is pregnant. She and her husband ask Maude who the baby’s father is, and she confesses that the man is named Thomas Craig, an Englishman employed alongside Maude’s father as an inspector of the rabbit-proof fence.
Maude has set a new precedent in this new world. She has consensually embarked upon a relationship with a white man, and will now bear their child, who will belong to both worlds—or, perhaps, to neither.
As summer turns to winter, Maude gives birth to a baby girl. The baby remains nameless until Thomas Craig returns to Jigalong after a weeklong trip out to the fence, at which point he names her Molly. When the baby is six weeks old, Maude introduces her to Mr. Keeling, the Superintendent, who writes in his diary that the first half-caste child has just been born at Jigalong station.
Molly is an anomaly within her tribe, and the first mixed-race child to be born at Jigalong. As such, from her birth she inspires curiosity and watchfulness on the part of the superintendent charged with “protecting” the Aboriginal people at Jigalong.
Molly grows up into a pretty little girl, well-loved by her family. However, as she gets older, she wishes she didn’t have such light skin. She is always forced to play by herself, as her Mardu playmates insult her, tease her, and call her a “mongrel dog.” One day, her mother tells her that two of her aunties have had baby girls who are muda-muda, like her, and that they will be coming to live at Jigalong. Molly anxiously looks forward to the arrival of her new “sisters.”
Though Molly’s family dotes upon her and showers her with affection, her playmates see her as an outcast and act cruelly towards her. The announcement that soon Molly will be joined by two girls like her represents a shift in Aboriginal culture as more and more half-caste children are being born, and Molly is no longer an oddity or a novelty at Jigalong.
Daisy and Gracie soon arrive at the station, and Gracie and Molly become “inseparable” as they grow older. They often play with Daisy, too. Mr. Keeling takes an unusual interest in the girls, noting that their playmates exclude them due to the color of their skin. He writes to the Department of Native Affairs, informing them of the girls’ presence and of the fact that “the blacks consider the [half-castes]” inferior. Keeling writes that he believes the girls would be better off if they were removed from Jigalong.
Keeling’s interference in the girls’ development is typical of the Australian government’s sense of entitlement when it comes to meddling in the affairs of Aboriginal people, and their relentless insistence that they know what is best for a people whose vibrant way of life they have effectively destroyed.
Half-caste children are being born all over Australia, and the government—believing that part-aboriginal children will be “more intelligent than their darker relations”—wants to isolate and train these children to work as domestic servants and laborers. Internment camps, or “missions,” have been set up to “improve the welfare and educational needs” of half-caste children. Pilkington writes that Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were unaware of the government’s designs on them, even as patrol officers travelled from station to station, routinely removing Aboriginal children from their families and transporting them to internment camps.
The government’s racism is evidenced by their belief that children who are partly white are more worthy of education and “humane” treatment than Aboriginal children. The government wants to assimilate the half-caste children into Australian society (while still keeping them segregated in prison-like schools) and has created internment camps which will isolate the children from their native roots and their culture. The government transparently wishes for the eradication of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture, and believes it can achieve this goal.
As years pass, the government keeps a watchful eye on Molly, Gracie, and Daisy, while their parents attempt to shield them both from taunts and from capture by rubbing ground charcoal all over the girls’ bodies to darken their skin.
The girls’ parents know that the girls are under surveillance, and hope that disguising them will shield them from facing further violence, loss, dispossession, and erasure of their culture.
In July of 1930, Molly and Daisy enjoy a leisurely breakfast with their families and then decide to take their clothes to the river to wash them. When they return to camp, their families’ dogs are barking and making a ruckus. A white man has entered the camp, wearing khaki clothing. Molly, Gracie, and their families realize that the “fateful day they [have] been dreading” has finally come.
As the worst fears of Molly and Daisy’s families come true, the full force of the government’s racist attitude, colonialist instincts, and false altruism descend upon their tribe.
Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, announces that he has come to take Molly, Gracie, and Daisy off to school at the Moore River Native Settlement. The girls’ families tearfully hand them over, and the Constable instructs the girls not to gather any of their belongings, as he will get them everything they need later on. Molly and Gracie go with the officer, who asks where Daisy is. Molly’s stepfather informs him that Daisy is at another station nearby, but Constable Riggs insists that he has already checked in with that station and was unable to find her. Nevertheless, he hurries the girls onto his horse, and the three set out for the depot as the girls’ families weep and wail.
The girls are cruelly ripped away from their families, and Constable Riggs knows that the Mardu are powerless to stop him. He also tells the girls not to bring any of their possessions—an attempt to further divorce them from their identities, and from any comforting memories of their home or their families. He makes his rabid pursuit of all the half-caste children he can get his hands on clear when he asks pressingly about Daisy’s whereabouts.
At the depot, Constable Riggs leads the girls to a car. Mr. Keeling stops him, and tells him that two local Aboriginal women need to be taken to the hospital. Riggs loads all four women—Molly, Gracie, Nellie, and Mimi-Ali—into his car. Riggs stops at outpost after outpost searching for Daisy. He eventually finds her and rips her away from her family in the middle of the night.
Molly, Gracie, and the two sick women who accompany them are all treated as little more than cargo. Riggs’s desperate desire to round up all the half-castes that he can contrasts with this casual approach to the girls’ well-being, representing his desire for completion of his mission, but his betrayal of his role as a “protector” of any kind.
Gracie’s mother informs her daughter’s white father that Gracie has been taken, and asks him why he wouldn’t do anything to stop her capture. He replies that there was nothing even he could do. She begs him to attempt to convince the government to give Gracie back, but he again insists that he is powerless. Gracie’s mother, hurt and angry, packs up and moves away from her tribe, to Wiluna.
Even white Australians are powerless against the government and its insidious agenda of subjugating Aboriginals by imprisoning mixed-race children. Pilkington includes this scene to show the fear that even white Australians face when it comes time to stand up to the perpetrators of unthinkable violence and cruelty who are sworn to “protect” the very people they hunt like animals.