Essay by Larissa Behrendt

Doris Pilkington Garimara tells the story of her mother in Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence. She tells her own story in Under the Wintamarra Tree (2003), of her premature birth, under the tree of the book’s title on Balfour Downs Station, a pastoral lease and cattle station located about 132 kilometres north-east of Newman in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. She was so small when she was born that she could fit in a shoebox and it was believed that she would not survive. As her birth perhaps foretold, Doris’s life was not going to be easy. At the age of four she was taken, along with her mother and two-year-old sister, Annabelle, from Jigalong to Moore River Native Settlement. For Molly, Doris’s mother, this was not the first time she had been to Moore River, and that first visit – and Molly’s subsequent journey home with her younger cousins Gracie and Daisy – will become the heart of Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence.

To me, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence is a book about connection to country and family. The heart of the story is the extraordinary journey Molly, Gracie and Daisy take as they escape Moore River Settlement and make the long walk home across hundreds of kilometres of desert back to their families. That story, central to the film adaptation, is given a more complex and expansive treatment in the book.

For Pilkington, the story of her own family cannot be told without the context of first contact and first settlement, of the erosion of physical security and the erosion of the way of life of Aboriginal people in other parts of the country. So she starts her story with the first encounters between Aboriginal people in Western Australia and sealers and whalers, as seen through the eyes of a warrior, Kundilla. He recounts the fate of the Nyungar people as colonial settlements are established on the west coast of Australia, and through these encounters we see the creeping but profound influence of European law, as it becomes the only law. Through these early conflicts, Pilkington explores the violence on the frontier so that we understand the motivations and contexts of the characters she will introduce us to.

Indigenous people have always understood interconnectedness. You had to work together in order to survive in a hunter/gatherer society. You understood the environment and how it could provide for your basic needs – food, tools, clothing, entertainment, medicine. You also had to understand your need for each other and to work together. Everything relates to everything else. And in this world of interdependence and reciprocity, you can’t think of the present without thinking of the past and the future.

And so understanding this context is critical. The story of how the Nyungar fared against the early colonists explains what is at stake for other Aboriginal people as Europeans expand their hold over the country. By the time we get to 1900 and the Mardudjara, Pilkington has illustrated what the Mardu (the traditional people) could lose as they navigate the profound changes affecting the Pilbara. Here there is less violent conflict than with the Nyungar but the relations are no less complex, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and stockmen and domestic servants defines the relationship between Aboriginal people and colonists in the area for years to come. Aboriginal people, particularly men, worked for pastoralists and Aboriginal women performed domestic duties in homesteads, ensuring that pastoralists could make their properties profitable. As part of the exchange, Aboriginal people stayed on their traditional land and could carry out cultural activities.

This didn’t mean that conflict, violence, retribution and sexual exploitation weren’t rife. The creation of the Canning stock route caused considerable conflict and, once established, profoundly changed the rhythms and movements of traditional life. But what is evident in Pilkington’s account of this history is that there was not just fear and foreboding about what was happening – Aboriginal people had a natural curiosity and wonder at the changes in the world around them. They were intrigued by European customs and technology and fascinated with the species settlers introduced, including horses, cattle, sheep, foxes, rabbits. Pilkington shows that this is a people who had long adapted to everything around them to survive and would continue to show that same resilience in the face of huge changes. She shows a society in which there is evolution and adaptation as traditional people sought to keep their values and adapt to living between two cultures.

And it is this background that is necessary to explain how a once nomadic society is drawn to the safety of government outposts for protection. As was the case around the country, many Aboriginal people settled on missions and reserves to escape frontier violence. This was a large part of the pact with the pastoralists as well, and it is this promise of safety that leads Aboriginal people to Jigalong Depot. The depot is a source of both curiosity and interest, providing protection, clothes, food and blankets. It was a bustling little community by the 1930s. Sacred objects were brought in from the desert and buried there, ceremonies were still performed and again we see the adaptation of Aboriginal people to a new set of circumstances. Nomadic lifestyle becomes semi-nomadic. But this sanctuary also allowed for greater European surveillance and control of the Aboriginal people who lived there.

It is here that Molly is born to an Aboriginal mother, Maude, and a white father, a worker on the rabbit-proof fence. And it is here that we see the first role the fence will play in this family story as it brings Pilkington’s grandparents together. The fence is a symbol of colonisation. It seeks to tame the land and keep out the introduced scourge of rabbits, but it also becomes a link between worlds.

The fence was built in 1907 to stop rabbits migrating into Western Australia from the east, but there ended up being more on the WA side of the fence than on the South Australian. It provides a graphic example of the failed attempts by Europeans to understand their new environment and brings home the fact that European impact could not be tempered. Depots like Jigalong were established as part of maintaining the fence.

Molly is the first half-caste born at Jigalong. Her cousins, Gracie and Daisy, follow. Half-castes become a distinct part of the community and represent the conundrum of being caught between two worlds. The government’s removal policy focuses on them because they are seen as easier to assimilate; as well, their own community at first are wary of them and the disruption they pose to traditional tribal and kinship systems. Superintendent Keely from Jigalong Depot wrote to the Department of Native Affairs in Perth, observing that Molly and some other children weren’t getting fair treatment because they were half-caste. And so the wheels of removal are set in motion and the girls are designated to the Moore River Settlement.

Unlike the heart-wrenching scene in the movie where the children are ripped from the community, in the book, Molly and Gracie are given over almost as a fait accompli (with Daisy later joining them), but the loss is no less heart-breaking. And this is not just so for the Aboriginal parents and families losing their children; Gracie’s white father watches her removal, feeling powerless to prevent it. That a white man feels the situation is beyond his control says much about the compulsion of the law and the sense of inevitability of removing children from one world to place them into another.

Pilkington describes the long journey the girls take to the Moore River Settlement – by boat and car – and what is striking is how the white people they come into contact with seem to express a benevolence and kindness towards the girls. For them, such forced separations are both necessary and inevitable even if the situation is also tragic and pitiable. As Pilkington observes of the girls: ‘They were doomed’.

But for me, this is not so much a book about the stolen generations as a story about the power of family and connection to country.

Once at the Moore River Settlement it doesn’t take long for the girls to plot their escape, drawn by their desire to be back with their families and be on their own country. Molly is clearly the leader in this, confident that her bushcraft can lead them home, and the younger girls trust her decision, her strength and her determination. In this there is the irony that the removal policy focused on half-castes, in the belief that they were more likely to lose their connection to family, community and country. Through Molly’s steely determination we see that the longing for family and home is instinctive, primal and urgent.

Molly and the girls knew about the fence and are armed with finely honed bush skills. They are helped along the way by a both black and white people who stand at arm’s length from the girls and their plight but assist with provisions. We see the curious role that black trackers played in hunting down their own people to send them back to the places they have fled and the complex relationships Aboriginal people have with pastoralists, who warily yet generously provide food for the girls, knowing they are fugitives but not actively helping or hindering them.

The officials seeking to recapture them assumed that the girls would not be able to make it home, underestimating their self-sufficiency and ability to adapt to the environments they encountered. The escape and journey home challenged the Department of Native Affairs. It was clearly underfunded for its tasks of providing education, support and provisions for Aboriginal people and it was under-resourced in its efforts to find Molly, Gracie and Daisy. Yet the officials seem cognisant of what the girls’ escape would symbolise and are nervous that the department’s prestige would be undermined if they were unable to bring the girls back to Moore River.

Gracie is eventually recaptured, but Molly and Daisy make it home. They are immediately taken out to the bush, away from the tighter surveillance of Jigalong Depot, though it is clear from the official paper trail that their movements were followed by the department throughout their lives. Molly would eventually go back to the Moore River Settlement as an adult, only to escape again – but that’s another story, one told in Doris Pilkington’s Under the Wintamarra Tree. 

Doris’s own journey to get back home was also a long, circuitous one. She became a nursing aide, a wife and a mother to six children. She would go back to school as a mature-aged student, study journalism, work in film and video and eventually win the David Unaipon Award for what would become her first book – Caprice: A Stockman’s Daughter. Doris seemed to find a kind of closure to what had happened to her as a child and to how she felt about herself when she took the journey home to Jigalong, where she had been taken from her family. And it was when she went home and was reunited with her mother that she embraced her culture, after being brought up to view Aboriginal culture as ‘savage’. She learnt her traditional language in the hope that she would be able to speak with the older people.

Doris had to reconcile the joy of home-coming with some painful questions. Why had she been taken, and not her younger sister, Annabelle, who had been left behind? Why had she been abandoned at the age of four and a half, not to see her mother again until 21 years later?

I am interested in the choices authors make when facing the challenges of writing a story drawn from memory. There are always gaps in the family knowledge – the removal policy certainly complicates the ability to tell complete stories as sometimes relatives were dislocated permanently. Then there is the problem that, if five family members attend an event there will be five – sometimes more – versions of what happened. The challenge for Pilkington also includes the time lapse between when she was writing her book and when the events actually occurred. Memories are not always correct or complete. Doris allowed for ‘patches of dimmed memories and sketchy reflections’ (Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, St Lucia: UQP, 1996, p. xii). She also had to bear in mind cultural difference – time, numbers and distances don’t have the same meanings for traditional Aboriginal people who may remember the season or the aspects of the physical landscape rather than dates, facts and figures. Doris explains that part of her creative practice as a writer was to ‘synthesise these different forms of knowledge to give readers the fullest insights into this historic journey’ (p. xiv).

The challenge for the author is: How do you fill in the gaps, especially when so much time has passed? And how do you decipher that when your characters and sources use seasons and landscape, instead of time and numbers, to remember when and where things happened? Doris addressed some of these conundrums by relying on an amalgam of official documentation, as well as the memories of her own family members. She took the skeletons of facts from the archive – dates, locations – and then fleshed them out with memories, anecdotes and recollections. She then added further colour by imagining what characters might feel and how they might react. This is the craft of the writer who chooses to tell a family history as a story.

I think of Doris so meticulously researching her story, using the skills that she went to university to learn, knowing that it was the quintessential tale to speak across generations and cultures about the cruelty, impact and legacy of the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families. I think of how insular and introverted the atmosphere is in libraries – even more so in archives – where you breathe in the dust and the smell of slow-rotting paper. There are so many clues to the stolen lives of Aboriginal people in those archives.

In an ABC radio interview, Doris said that the cruellest thing she ever did was to accuse her mother of giving her away. It took her many years to accept her mother’s account of what happened to her, to change the narrative that had been drummed into her head that her mother hadn’t wanted her. Whatever her deep regrets about her relationship with her mother, she spent much time atoning for it by telling the story of Molly’s own journey.

When I see how Doris lovingly crafted her story in Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, I am reminded again about the deep regret she had for the flash of unintended cruelty she showed to her mother. When I sit down to write, I do it because I want to tell a story, but I rarely do it just to entertain. I think most writers are like that. We also write to teach, to learn, to heal, to grow, to resolve. These might sound like clichés but they are nevertheless true. And I like to read Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence in the same way, as a love letter to a mother, a way of walking in her shoes.

In this way, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence is a meditation on the cultural clashes of two worlds, where forced assimilation is just one of the very powerful forces at play. The book asks the reader to step into the shoes of the heroines and take that long journey – across a continent and across many decades – in order to see how central love of land and kinship ties are.

© Copyright Larissa Behrendt 2014