The history of the indigenous population of Australia is marked by loss and dispossession. In the early chapters of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington, writing imaginatively about the early days of English colonization of Australia, explores how English settlers systematically stripped Aboriginal Australians of their land, property, and culture from the moment they set foot on Australia’s shores. This pattern continued unabated up to and well beyond the 1930s, when the main action of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence takes place—a time when “half-caste” (that is, mixed-race white and Aboriginal) children were forcibly removed from their families, confined to internment camps, and cut off from their native roots, deepening their loss of cultural heritage. Through Molly, Gracie, and Daisy’s story of internment and escape, Pilkington demonstrates the ways in which the legacy of colonialism in Australia is one of loss and dispossession—not just of land or material goods, but of spirit, agency, and destiny. Nevertheless, she argues that even as the Aboriginal people may appear to have lost everything, there remains a fierce desire for reclamation of Aboriginal rights, independence, and the dignity of “planning [one’s] own destiny.”
Pilkington describes her mother and aunt’s childhood, saying that “the girls were fortunate to be part of a loving family who tried to compensate for all the nasty insults and abuse” the girls suffered due to their mixed racial heritage “by spoiling and indulging them at home.” Knowing that their daughters would face prejudice from both their Aboriginal friends and relatives as well as from white Australians, Pilkington’s grandparents—Daisy and Molly’s parents—sought to reclaim a measure of comfort, stability, and acceptance for their daughters. The story of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is ultimately the story of Molly, Daisy, and Gracie reclaiming their own lives and narratives. After being captured by Constable Riggs (an Australian government official whose title was “Protector of Aborigines”) and taken to the Moore River Settlement, the girls escaped into the Australian bush and began a thousand-mile trek home to Jigalong, using the rabbit-proof fence as a guidepost to light their way home. The journey took them months to complete, during which time they bravely overcame opposition from nature and from the people (Aboriginal and white Australian alike) that they encountered along the way, as well as from within their own hearts and minds as they struggled to remain determined and motivated to find their way home.
In recording her family’s history in this book, Pilkington herself is also doing the work of reclamation of history in the face of loss and dispossession. Determined to tell the story of her mother’s struggle and of the destructive effects of colonialism, Pilkington ultimately reclaims her family’s narrative from the white colonizers who worked so determinedly to see such stories erased and forgotten. Although loss and dispossession have no doubt shaped the history not just of her family but of her people, Pilkington’s drive to relay that history—creating art out of the ashes of dispossession and disenfranchisement—demonstrates the power of storytelling to heal and redeem. Pilkington’s book is an act of recovering her family’s narrative, at least in part, from the devastation of loss.
The cultures and customs of the Aboriginal people vary greatly across the vast Australian mainland, and their persecution and dispossession are ongoing to this day. Therefore, Pilkington can’t—and doesn’t claim to—speak for all Aboriginals. She has crafted a story which uplifts the act of reclaiming one’s story or one’s destiny as an act of heroism. In mirroring her mother’s reclamation of her own fate by reclaiming her family’s narrative in the pages of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Pilkington demonstrates the importance of the work of reclamation, and the power it has to subvert the effects of loss and dispossession.
Loss, Dispossession, and Reclamation ThemeTracker
Loss, Dispossession, and Reclamation Quotes in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
The Nyungar people, and indeed the entire Aboriginal population, grew to realize what the arrival of the European settlers meant for them: it was the destruction of their traditional society and the dispossession of their lands.
The white settlers were a protected species; they were safe with their own laws and had police and soldiers to enforce these rules.
As a further insult by the white invaders, an act of goodwill in the form of an annual distribution of blankets to the Aboriginal people was established. This generally occurred on Queen Victoria’s birthday. The Illustrated Melbourne Post of 20 August 1861, page 9, described this event as “a sorry return for millions of acres of fertile land of which we have deprived them. But they are grateful for small things, and the scanty supply of food and raiment doled out to this miserable remnant of a once numerous people is received by them with the most lively gratitude.”
Molly and Daisy had just finished eating when all the camp dogs began barking. All eyes turned to the cause of the commotion. A tall white man stood on the bank above them. Fear and anxiety swept over them when they realized that the fateful day they had been dreading had come at last. They always knew it would only be a matter of time before the government would track them down. When Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, finally spoke his voice was full of authority and purpose.
“I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie, and Daisy with me to go to school at the Moore River Settlement.”
The rest of the family just hung their heads refusing to face the man who was taking their daughters away from them.
“You should have seen the other ones who were locked up for running away,” [Martha] said. “They all got seven days punishment with just bread and water. Mr. Johnson shaved their heads bald and made them parade around the compound so that everyone could see them. They got the strap too.”
When the sons and daughters of the landed gentry and businessmen and professionals such as doctors, lawyers and politicians, were sent away to boarding schools to be educated they were likely to be given pleasant rooms that would be theirs for the duration of their schooling. Instead of a residential school, the Aboriginal children were placed in an overcrowded dormitory. The inmates, not students, slept on cyclone beds with government-issue blankets. There were no sheets or pillow slips except on special occasions when there was an inspection by prominent officials. Then they were removed as soon as the visitors left the settlement and stored away until the next visit. On the windows there were no colourful curtains, just wire screens and iron bars. It looked more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children.
“Long way” sums up rather understatedly what was, without a doubt, one of the longest walks in the history of the Australian outback. While other parts of this vast country have been crossed on horses or camels, these three girls did their exploring on their bare feet. An incredible achievement in anyone’s language. The vastness and the diversity of the Western Australian landscape would always be respected and appreciated by them—they trekked across it and conquered.