Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

by

Doris Pilkington

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Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence Summary

In the early 1800s, two leaders of Aboriginal tribes separately encounter white English colonists. Though the elders, Kundilla and Yellagonga, are warily optimistic at first, it becomes clear that the English have one goal and one goal only: take as much Aboriginal land as they can. As the colonizers’ hold on Australia grows tighter and tighter, Aboriginal tribes all across the continent are forced to abandon their lands, their cultures, and even their languages, while the English dole out meager rations and supplies to the peoples they have decimated and remark blithely on the Aboriginals’ “gratitude” for these “small things.”

By the early 1900s, Western Australia is a prosperous settlement, though the original inhabitants have been marginalized and forced to adapt to the presence of white settlers. In 1907, a rabbit-proof fence which runs through Western Australia, designed to keep invasive rabbit populations from migrating to coastal towns from the bush in the east, has been completed, though it is not as effective as the government hoped it would be. The Mardudjara—or Mardu—Aboriginal people, who once roamed freely throughout Western Australia, have been scattered and devastated by nearly a century of violence at the hands of the white settlers. As the nomadic desert tribes of Western Australia seek a consistent food supply (their hunting grounds and arable lands having been occupied by whites), settlements like the Jigalong depot, which allow the Aboriginals to maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle supplemented by government rations, begin to thrive as centers of Aboriginal life.

A girl named Molly—the author’s mother—is born at the Jigalong settlement to an Aboriginal mother and a white father. She endures teasing from the other Aboriginal children, but as the number of half-caste, or mixed-race, children in the area begins to grow, Molly feels less alone. With the arrival of her “sisters”—her cousins Gracie and Daisy, also half-caste girls—Molly finally feels like she has true friends. While Molly, Gracie, and Daisy play and grow, local government officials watch the girls carefully. Half-caste children all around the country are being rounded up and sent away to “missions,” where they are educated and assimilated far away from their native roots. In July of 1930, when Molly is fifteen, Constable Riggs—the Protector of Aborigines—arrives in Jigalong to take the girls away.

After a long and overwhelming journey south, to Perth and beyond, the girls arrive at the Moore River Native Settlement. Their accommodations feel more like a jail than a dormitory, and the girls long for home. They quickly befriend a girl named Martha Jones, who is Molly’s age. Martha shows the girls the ropes and attempts to make them feel at home—or at least a little better—but Molly’s mind is made up: she plans to take her sisters and escape at first opportunity. On the morning the girls are meant to start classes, Molly leads her sisters to the lavatory while their bunkmates head off to class. From there, the girls make a break for it, and so begins a nine-week, 1100-mile trek through the Australian bush. Molly plans to find the rabbit-proof fence and follow it all the way home, but their journey is not so simple. The government is hunting them, sending out search planes and trackers to try and corner the girls in the vast wilds of the outback. The girls, desperate for food and drinkable water, rely on the survival skills they learned from their tribe as often as they are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers—strangers who often report them to the authorities as soon as the girls are out of sight. Despite all these dangers and more—wild animals, inclement weather, cold winter temperatures, and infected wounds—the girls make it to the rabbit-proof fence. As they near home, Gracie hears that her mother has moved to Wiluna, and breaks off from the group in order to find her. Molly and Daisy, devastated by the separation but determined to complete the journey, carry on towards home. Seemingly against all odds, they make it back to their families. As soon as the girls arrive back in Jigalong, their parents pack up and move them out of sight of the government’s watchful eyes, hoping to keep the girls safe from recapture.

In an epilogue, Doris Pilkington informs her readers that Gracie never made it to her mother—she was captured and sent back to Moore River almost immediately. Molly was eventually recaptured, as well, and her daughter—Doris (the author)—was raised in the Moore River facility herself.