Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
May 1, 2019 9:08 AM - by Doris Pilkington - Subscribe

This extraordinary story of courage and faith is based on the actual experiences of three girls who fled from the repressive life of Moore River Native Settlement, following along the rabbit-proof fence back to their homelands. Assimilationist policy dictated that these girls be taken from their kin and their homes in order to be made white.

Author Doris Pilkington / Nugi Garimara is the daughter of one of the three girls. She spent much of her own youth at the Moore River Native Settlement, and only later learned the story of their escape from her Aunt Daisy, another of the girls.
posted by jacquilynne (5 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was really worried I wasn't going to finish this book on time, but once I started reading it, it turned out to be quite a short book. It's not the easiest read because it makes liberal use of Mardujara vocabulary words. They're explained at the end of the book, but as I was reading an ebook, the glossary was hard to access at any given moment. There were also a couple of funny moments in which I read the glossary definition of something and then had to go google the words in the definition, because I also didn't know those words -- I suspect an Australian audience would have recognized them but I didn't.

The story starts well before the story starts with a few short chapters on the history of colonization in Western Australia and then really gets into the meat of the story in Chapter 5, when the Mollie, Gracie and Daisy actually come into things.

I loved reading about the resourcefulness of the girls in finding their way, in avoiding being tracked and making themselves as safe as possible and about the love and care they offered each other -- at one point, they take turns carrying each other so they one being carried can rest her feet. I found myself cheering them along with each small victory and success in evading the searchers. Mollie was obviously a hellaciously smart woman and she kept her friends safe.

One of the things I found really odd was how much time and effort was put into tracking down these few particular girls, both to take them to "school" in the first place and later to find them after they escaped. It seemed like just a huge amount of resources was dedicated to making kids go to these places, and then to tracking them down after. But then finally, they just sort of give up and let the girls stay away.

It all seems to be part of a general confusion among the white folks about what they were doing and why. People along the route would both help them with food and help the searchers find them, for example. I guess it's all part of the paternalism that lead to the idea that assimilation was the best possible outcome -- that indigenous and mixed-race people would most clearly want to be white and be part of white culture.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:43 AM on May 1, 2019

Well, the way white supremacism plays out differs according to context and history. In Australia, although the removal of Aboriginal children looks similar to the Native Schools system in Canada the big difference is the authorities were specifically removing mixed-race children from their families.

Skin colour can change without trace in two generations. The children of the first mixed-race Aboriginal mothers might easily have been white. Since the whole argument of white superiority is based on skin colour, if people who looked white were visibly living a traditional lifestyle in the bush that would be pretty damning to its basic premis, and that's what the policy was actively avoiding. At the same time, as with other native schools, it de-racinated the children in such a way as to force them into a permanent underclass with no alternative cultural touchstones to look up to to help them out of that trap.

The other thing was that these children were so visible there was no way for families to avoid the attentions of the schools unless they lived somewhere completely out of the way of white influence. There's a terrific Australian film based on the book, due to the casting choices made the visibility thing isn't evident in the film; but at the end there is a vignette with two of the women who were taken interacting with their families, and there it is obvious. There was no hiding mixed-race children.

I think American white supremacism tried to solve the undermining effect of racial and cultural mixing by invoking the one-drop rule - 'it doesn't matter what you look like, if we know you had a black ancestor you are definitely black and thus, inferior to us, who are white and just altogether better.' (American popular fiction from the era of slavery onwards is full of cautionary tales of the dangers of desirable strangers not being (Gasp!) really white (Horror!!) - also less hatefully slanted stories* like for instance that episode in Showboat; and stories of people passing.) But there are lots of variations in the ways colonial invasion played out in different countries and continents.

*ie Puddenhead Wilson
posted by glasseyes at 1:36 PM on May 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Thanks, I appreciate the additional perspective. I am Canadian and so know a bit about the residential school system and the ongoing problem with removing indigenous children from their families here, but not as much about the different ways colonialism manifested elsewhere.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:28 PM on May 1, 2019

In addition to glasseyes excellent reading, kids in residential schools over here were also used as a source of slave labour. There was an economic incentive to keeping tabs on those girls - they were three revenue streams for the Crown, basically.
posted by Jilder at 8:45 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I read this book early last month, so I don't remember a lot of the details. I was also struck at how much effort was put into removing the three girls, when the girls and their families clearly didn't want them to be sent away. Thank you for the information glasseyes and Jilder--this adds a lot of context that was missing for me!
posted by lucy.jakobs at 11:04 AM on May 2, 2019

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