Pilkington writes that the conditions at Moore River were so “degrading and inhumane” that anyone living there was considered to be doomed. Members of the staff from that period would later confirm how awful things really were after the camp had closed.
Even those charged with running the school were aware of how dire the circumstances there were, but they kept up the charade of altruism for as long as the settlements would remain open.
The girls’ first day of school is a dark, wet, cold morning. All the girls in their dormitory are awakened at 5:30 a.m., and soon head to breakfast, then back to the dormitory again to wait for the school bell. Molly feels she is too grown up for school, and this is just one of the many reasons why she feels she must get herself and her sisters out of the settlement. After the school bell rings, Martha instructs the three girls to follow her to school. Molly tells Martha that they will catch up with her after they have emptied their toilet buckets. Martha offers to wait, but Molly insists she go ahead. As the other girls file out of the dormitory, Molly draws her sisters close to her and tells them to grab their bags—they are leaving, and going home to Jigalong.
Molly, determined not to even begin her “education” at Moore River, has devised a plan to get herself and her sisters out of the settlement. Molly knows that the only way she, Gracie, and Daisy will be able to get out is through escape—she is not foolish enough to believe that they will be allowed to go home, or that their families will come to rescue them. Though the consequences are dire, Molly knows she has to reclaim her destiny and find a way back to her family, far away from the clutches of the settlement.
Gracie and Daisy protest. They are afraid that they will never be able to make the journey home. Molly confidently assures the girls that the trip will be easy: they’ll just find the rabbit-proof fence, and follow it all the way back to Jigalong. Gracie and Daisy, impressed by Molly’s confidence, agree to leave with her. They collect their scant possessions, pick up their toilet buckets, and head for the lavatory.
Though Gracie and Daisy are wary at first, they trust so deeply in their older sister that they agree to follow her lead. The frightened girls need little convincing to leave—they are younger than Molly, and deeply homesick.
Outside, after the girls have emptied their buckets, they make a run for it, dashing down the cliffs to the river. As the girls traverse the riverbanks, they realize they will need to cross to the other side—they make several attempts to do so, but the river is deep and the current is strong. Eventually, they come upon a tree which has created a natural bridge across the river, and they traverse it, running for their lives.
Just out of the settlement, the girls encounter their first obstacle. Though the weather is stormy and the river is treacherous, the girls eventually find a natural bridge across. This first bridge symbolizes the providential relationship the girls will have with nature as they undertake their quest.
After a short rest, Molly urges her younger sisters to get up and start moving again. Wilderness is her “kin,” and her sisters are safe in her capable hands. Molly memorized the direction the girls had travelled as they made their way south, and now she uses her memory of the trip along with the position of the sun, and the other orientation skills she has gained through “knowledge of bushcraft” to set herself and her sisters on the right path.
As if to cement the metaphorical point she made in the last passage, Pilkington points out the “kinship” between Molly and the natural world, and writes that it is Molly’s intimate knowledge of the wilderness (and how to survive in it) that will get her, Gracie, and Daisy through the rest of their ordeal.
The girls come to a sand plain, and thickets of acacia scratch their bare legs. Happy to be on the dry heathlands of Western Australia rather than in the slush and swamp of the river, the girls investigate their new surroundings and take in the beautiful wildflowers and interesting flora all around them.
Again, Pilkington notes the girls’ love of nature, and their excitement to be exploring new and intriguing parts of their vast continent.
As the girls continue north on the plains, clouds gather overhead, and they suddenly hear heavy footsteps. The girls dive into a prickly thicket, waiting for the “thing” pursuing them to pass. Once they are sure it is gone, the girls breathlessly whisper with one another, believing that they have just seen a marbu—a flesh-eating dark spirit. Pilkington writes that the only logical explanation for the phenomenon all three girls witnessed is that a “particularly large, hairy Aboriginal man running to beat the storm” crossed their path. Frightened, and truly believing they have seen a demon, the girls hurry onward.
The girls’ upbringing in Aboriginal culture has instilled in them not just a love of and an intimacy with nature, but a belief in the spirit world. The frightened girls—worried that they will be pursued by a tracker or by someone from Moore River—let their imaginations run away with them, signaling their discomfort and fear in their dangerous circumstances despite all their prowess in nature.
Coming upon a group of rabbit burrows in a cluster of sand dunes, the girls decide to sleep in a burrow for the night. They dig into a deserted burrow and make a dry shelter for themselves. They nibble on some bread they nicked from breakfast, and drink water from clear pools they find in the dunes. The girls snuggle together, and though Gracie has a nightmare that a marbu is attacking her, the girls eventually sleep soundly, tired from their journey.
Gracie, the most fearful of the group, is haunted by a nightmare in which a spirit comes for her and her sisters. Again, Pilkington is using the girls’ fear of the mythical marbu to illustrate their general fear of any pursuers as they realize the seriousness of their situation and the length of the journey ahead of them.
In the morning, the girls are awakened by the sounds of rabbits thumping in their nearby burrows. Gracie wants to catch a rabbit for breakfast, but Molly tells her they have no matches to light a fire and cook it. Gracie catches and kills a rabbit anyway, but is unable to find a sharp object with which to skin it. The girls drink more water and eat what’s left of their now-stale crusts of bread. Gracie begs Molly to turn them around and return them to the settlement. She is afraid of dying in the wilderness, shaken by her dreams of the marbu. Molly refuses, telling Gracie that they’ll be gravely punished if they return, and the three girls move on. Molly assures the other girls that they’ll soon find something real to eat.
Gracie proves herself to be the most vocal of the group—not just in terms of her fears, but in terms of her desires and her ideas about how the girls should traverse the outback. Gracie’s desire to turn around and go back to the settlement once again signals her fear of the dire circumstances, but Molly warns her that there are worse dangers back at the school than there are ahead of them in the bush.
The girls soon arrive at another branch of the Moore River, and cross precariously along a wire fence. After passing through an area of bushland which has been scorched by fire, the girls encounter two Mardu men on their way home from hunting. One of the men asks the girls where they are going, and Molly tells them they are headed for Jigalong. The men advise the girl to be careful of the terrain, and of a Mardu tracker who collects runaway girls from the bush. The men give the girls some food to eat, as well as a box of matches and salt.
In this first instance of the girls’ reliance on the kindness of strangers, they are able to meet and connect with other Mardu in the bush. Here, the girls’ identity and their connection to their culture helps them in a different way than just providing them with know-how: they are able to communicate with and draw empathy from members of their own tribe.
The girls continue onward until dusk, then decide to make camp for the night. They build a fire and cook the meat the Mardu men gave them, then sleep in the rough bush around their fire. In the morning they eat some leftovers from supper, and set out again. Though they note that the weather looks gloomy, they are grateful for rain as it will help to conceal their tracks from the tracker they heard about back at the settlement.
In this passage, Pilkington illustrates the tension between the members of the girls’ tribe who want to help them—the Mardu men who offered them supplies and good luck—and the members of their tribe who want to hurt them—the “black tracker” whom the girls worry is hot on their trail, and will drag them back to Moore River to endure a grisly punishment.
By midday, the girls—especially Gracie—are desperately hungry. When they come upon another group of rabbit burrows, Molly excitedly announces that the girls are going to catch some rabbits for their lunch. They catch a few and continue walking until they again find a safe place to make camp. They cook, eat, and sleep, and in the morning, they set out once again.
With the help of the Mardu men, the girls have been able to take a large step toward self-sufficiency. They can hunt, and now they have the means to prepare the game they catch in the wilderness and sustain themselves throughout the journey.
The girls see two huge kangaroos fighting with one another, and skirt around them to avoid being drawn into the skirmish. The girls rest on a log, frightened by the harsh and unforgiving nature in which they’ve found themselves, when Molly suddenly jumps up and orders the girls to hide in a nearby tree. Once they’re safely sheltered there, they hear a plane flying overhead—a search plane which is surely looking for them. Once the plane disappears, the girls continue onward, feeling fearful and full of despair.
The two kangaroos—familiar desert creatures made frightening now that the girls are facing them down all alone—along with the search plane overhead symbolize the threats (both natural and manmade) that surround the girls at every turn.
Around noon the girls come upon a farmhouse. Molly urges her sisters to head up to the house and ask the woman of the house for food while she waits outside. A young girl welcomes Daisy and Gracie graciously, then fetches her mother, who instantly recognizes them girls as the runaways from the Moore River settlement. The woman asks where the third girl is, and when Gracie and Daisy tell her that Molly is outside, she urges them to go and fetch her while she makes the girls something to eat. Gracie and Daisy are reluctant, but the woman promises she won’t report them.
Again, Molly, Gracie, and Daisy seek out the help and kindness of strangers—this time, a white family who may or may not pose a threat to them. The lady of the house assures the girls that she is on their side, and that though she has heard of them she will not turn them into the authorities. The girls see an ally in this woman, and they let their defenses down in the presence of what they think is true altruism.
While the girls eat, the woman (who is named Mrs. Flanagan, and who had received a call from a government official hunting the girls very recently) asks the girls questions about their destination and their journey so far. When they tell her they are planning to follow the rabbit-proof fence back home, she tells them that they must head eastward if they want to reach the fence. She prepares the girls thick, delicious sandwiches, fruit cake, and sweet hot tea. Mrs. Flanagan fills a couple of bags with food and supplies, and offers them warm, dry clothes.
Mrs. Flanagan makes sure that the girls are well-fed and warmly dressed before sending them off. Her actions are kind and her advice is sound—she really seems to be on the girls’ side, and concerned with their wellbeing. The girls are entranced by the delicious food and the comfortable clothing, and seem totally comfortable in Mrs. Flanagan’s presence.
Mrs. Flanagan sees the girls off, wishing them well on their journey. As she watches them go, she decides that they are far too young to be wandering in the bush alone. Telling herself that she fears for the girls’ safety, she calls the local Superintendent in order to report them, seeing it as her “duty.” Mrs. Flanagan assures herself that she is doing the right thing.
The girls make a plan to follow a routine whenever they reach a farmhouse or local station. Gracie and Daisy approach the house and ask for food while Molly stays out of sight, where she can watch them in case of any trouble. After leaving Mrs. Flanagan’s house, Molly has the good sense to continue in the same direction, rather than heading east, in order to confuse anyone that Mrs. Flanagan may have contacted with the girls’ whereabouts.
The girls prove themselves to be more cautious than they seemed to be. They devise a careful plan for seeking help from others in the future, in order to ensure that anyone who reports them is working with inaccurate information. They did not fully trust Mrs. Flanagan, and head in a direction that will deliberately confuse anyone she informed.
The girls find a thick heath where they can make camp for the night, and enjoy the delicious supper that Mrs. Flanagan packed for them. In the morning, the skies are clear, and the girls make tea and enjoy a quiet breakfast. Unbeknownst to them, news of their escape and pleas for their capture are spreading like wildfire all across Australia.
While the girls are struggling just to keep themselves fed, they have no sense of the scale of the search currently being conducted by the government authorities who want to recapture them. Pilkington heightens the drama of the narrative by highlighting the girls’ lack of awareness of the danger they are in.
The girls set out again, visiting another farmhouse and gathering more food before continuing on. That night, as the girls fall asleep, Molly is kept awake by thoughts of how far the three of them still have to travel.
Molly, the eldest, reckons with the fact that their families are still far away, and that the journey toward reclaiming their destinies will be longer than she perhaps realized.
The next morning, the girls continue on despite a painful development—the scratches on their legs from the acacia bushes have become infected and sore, so the girls are having more difficulty walking than before. As they continue their long days trekking through the bush, people whose houses they’ve stopped at report them to the authorities, and more careful, up-to-date descriptions of the girls spread through the newspapers and the gossip mill. As the girls continue homeward, they do not know that they are only a few days ahead of those searching for them.
The girls have reached a point in their trek at which things are steadily becoming more and more difficult, and the obstacles they face are becoming clearer. Between the voracious government authorities hunting them and the onset of physical distress, the girls struggle to keep ahead of all the challenges that threaten to drag them back to Moore River.
After another week of travel, the girls’ legs have erupted in festering sores. The girls have now been on the run for a month, and they are tired, sore, and disheartened. The younger girls take turns giving each other piggy-back rides to ease their discomfort.
Even in their most painful, desperate moment, the girls look out for one another, physically carrying one another to ensure they are safe and able to carry on.
One day, around noon, Molly shrieks excitedly. Finally, the girls have come to the rabbit-proof fence. She recognizes it because her father, an inspector, has told her so much about it. The girls all feel a sense of relief and renewal as they begin following the fence toward Jigalong. For the three girls, Pilkington writes, the fence represents proximity to love, home, and security. Molly excitedly tells her sisters that they are almost home, despite the fact that reaching the fence is only the halfway point in their journey.
The sight of the rabbit-proof fence symbolizes that the girls’ journey to this point has been a success. Molly’s plan has come to fruition, and in the depths of their pain and misery, there is at last a happy end in sight. Though Molly knows there is still so much more ground to cover, she is encouraged by the sight of the fence, and tries to get her sisters feeling reinvigorated and full of hope once more, too.
Midway through the afternoon, the girls hear a man’s voice calling out to them—it is an Aboriginal man riding a bike. The three girls run into the bush, but the man insists he only wants to talk to them. He offers them food, and the hungry girls crawl out of the bush to accept it. The man introduces himself as Don, a worker at a nearby station. He asks the girls where they are going, and they tell him that they are headed to Wiluna. Pilkington writes that Don would later report meeting the girls to his boss, who would then telephone a local constable.
Once again, the girls encounter someone whose intentions seem pure but whose actions will prove otherwise. The girls, having learned from the close call with Mrs. Flanagan, deliberately give the man the wrong information, knowing—or at least suspecting—that he will be yet another person who turns them in, either out of a sense of cruelty or misguided concern for their wellbeing.
The police send a tracker out to look for the girls based on the information provided by Don, but the tracker discontinues the search after only a short while as the girls became difficult to track. Knowing that they are being hunted, the wily girls double back on their own tracks in order to deceive anyone who might be hunting them.
The girls continue to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, taking careful measures to ensure that nothing interferes with their journey home to their families—and home, in a way, to themselves.
By the time September rolls around, the police effort to find the girls has been stepped up considerably. After five weeks in the bush, the girls are weary, but remain determined. They eat emu chicks, as food in the bush is growing scarcer as they draw further north, and continue to sleep under the cover of heavy brushes.
The government, frustrated by their inability to complete the seemingly simple task of tracking down three young, defenseless girls, doubles down on their efforts—not out of a desire to help the girls, but out of a desire not to be embarrassed by them.
One morning, the girls awake to the sound of horses’ hooves. Molly urges her sisters to stay still and silent until the riders pass by. The girls set off, deciding to eat their breakfast on foot. Gracie tells Molly that they should go into a nearby town to seek help from a distant relative, but Molly insists that there are policemen in town and that it’s safer to press on. As the girls draw nearer and nearer to home in the days that follow, policemen grow more and more desperate to close in on the girls, but are unable to close in on their tracks.
The girls’ journey is reaching a crucial point. As the ramped-up search party attempts to close in on them, the girls experience seeds of discord and disagreement about how they should proceed. The frightened and frustrated Gracie longs to take a shortcut, but Molly refuses to jeopardize their progress—she knows they can make it all the way if they just press on.
When the girls come upon a local station, Gracie decides to depart from the group. She is exhausted, and a muda-muda woman at the station has told her that her mother is now living in Wiluna. Gracie plans to take a train to Wiluna in order to be with her mother. Molly and Daisy beg Gracie not to leave them, but Gracie is determined not to trudge on any farther.
Gracie, who has been desperate for safety or for a shortcut since the beginning of the girls’ journey, finally finds a way home to her own mother on what she thinks will be her own terms. Though Molly and Daisy are devastated to separate from the only family they have known since all three were pulled away from home, they agree that since Gracie’s mother is in Wiluna it is the best place for her to go.
Molly and Daisy stop for a rest near a riverbed and Molly, exhausted from arguing with Gracie, quickly falls asleep. While Molly sleeps, Daisy raids a nearby birds’ nest to collect some baby chicks for dinner. She falls out of a tree, and as she does, she shouts. Her shout draws the attention of a man nearby, who tells Daisy that he knows who she is. He asks where Molly is, and Daisy runs off. The man staggers after her, threatening to report her, but Daisy reaches Molly before he can catch up with her and the two set out into the bush.
The two girls, now on their own, are shown faltering separately in this passage. While Molly, full of rage and grief, falls asleep unintentionally, Daisy stumbles while trying to secure the girls’ next meal and exposes herself—and Molly—to a new threat. Even so, the girls are able to band together and escape, a testament to the strength of their bond and their ability to work together even without Gracie, after all.
Soon the girls reach a familiar cattle station, which excites them even as they realize that they are completely out of food. Unable to sleep on empty stomachs, the girls continue walking through the night until weariness forces them to stop and rest. In the morning, they set out again, and soon reach their aunt’s camp, who greets them with both joy and sadness. Their aunt bathes and feeds them, remarking on how skinny they’ve grown, and then puts them to sleep on soft, comfortable beds.
Finally, the girls have arrived at a kind of home base, and are able to experience their first reprieve from the wilderness in months. Lavished with attention, affection, and care, the girls sleep soundly knowing that they have, to a certain extent at least, completed their goal and reclaimed their fates.
The girls rise slowly in the morning, grateful to not have to rush or eat on the run. They enjoy a leisurely breakfast with their family, and then announce their plans to return to Jigalong that day. An employee at the station where one of their cousins works gives the girls a camel to ride, and the girls set out—with the man and their cousin—on the final leg of their journey.
The end is in sight, and the final stretch of the girls’ journey is made considerably less burdensome by the fact that they are able to travel with family, and to do so using a mode of transportation other than their scratched and sore bare feet.
The girls sleep a dreamless sleep that night, and enjoy a delicious breakfast in the morning. They grow nearer and nearer to home, and their joy increases each moment. It is October, now, and their homeland is beautiful in the light of the changing season. Within days, the girls can see the hills where their families hunt, and soon they are at their camp, where they are greeted with much fanfare.
The final part of the girls’ journey is full of happiness and triumph as they consider all they have had to do to get through the wilderness. By the time the girls finally return to their families, their journey has become an enormous metaphorical statement about the human need to remain connected to family, culture, and identity in the face of racism, dispossession, and cruelty.
The next morning, Molly and Daisy’s families move away from the depot, with no intention of returning until they are certain that the government has stopped looking for their daughters. The girls are frightened of being returned to the Moore River Native Settlement after such a long and arduous journey, and they are more than aware that there are many government officials who would love nothing more than to recapture them and send them back.
The girls’ families waste no time in finding a way to shelter them—hopefully once and for all—from the watchful eyes and cruel clutches of the Australian government. The girls’ families watched them be taken once, and are doing everything in their power to ensure that they are not dispossessed of their children once again.
The Protector of Aborigines at the Jigalong Depot writes to A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, to say that the girls have been “well and truly camouflaged” in the desert by their families and that attempting to recover them now is futile. Even when Constable Riggs reports to the Commissioner of Aboriginal Affairs to inform him that Molly has recently been sighted, the Commissioner writes that Molly has been “costly” enough and has earned the government “a lot of undesirable publicity.” A.O. Neville writes that he still wants Daisy to be recaptured, “if no great expense [would] be incurred; otherwise the prestige of the Department [would] suffer.”
In reprinting a series of letters sent between members of the local government, Pilkington displays the many different ways the officials saw the girls. Some saw them as costly embarrassments not worth the effort of retrieving, while others felt that it was worth trying to recapture the girls in order to save face and keep their departments from “suffering.” One final time, Pilkington highlights the irony of these men’s titles as protectors, when really they are predators.
Pilkington reveals that Gracie was recaptured soon after returning to Wiluna. She was unable to find her mother there, but planned to wait for her. After a few days, however, a Mardu police tracker reported her to the authorities and she was returned to the Moore River Native Settlement.
The sad fact that Gracie never made it back to her family parallels the experiences of the countless Aboriginal people who were—and are—unable to reconnect with their culture, and forbidden from even trying at every turn.
The girls’ historic trek took nearly nine weeks. Pilkington writes that Molly, her mother is now in her late seventies. Pilkington is in awe of her mother, whose journey through the bush was an “incredible achievement in anyone’s language.”
Pilkington’s reverence for her mother’s spirit mirrors her reverence for the endurance of the Aboriginal people. Despite centuries of unspeakable violence and cruelty, Pilkington’s mother’s story ends on a note of hope for the ability to reclaim one’s fate in the face of colonial rule.