Firstly, massive apologies to all my followers for the looooong wait between reviews! As many of you know, I work full time in primary education, and the start of the first term back after the long summer holidays is always absolutely exhausting, plus I am working hard on growing my little online side hustle…there are never sufficient hours in a day, really! I have also been rewarding myself with short reads from a fabulous book of Mum’s, a compilation of the 100 best short stories ever, which is highly engaging and somewhat controversial in its selection…but is taking me an age to get through, it’s a hefty volume! Excuses aside though, here I am with my thoughts about a slim yet deeply moving and issue raising narrative non fiction book, Doris Pilkington’s ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’.
Ms Pilkington is the daughter of one of the protagonists in this book, the half caste Aboriginal girl, Molly. The book recounts the forcible removal of Molly and two other girls from their families to a Native Settlement, their subsequent escape, and their long walk home following the rabbit proof fence. Shortest summary ever for a book that touches on so many sensitive issues. And the author herself was taken from her mother at the age of four and sent to the Moore River Settlement, only being reunited with her mother over twenty years later.
In the opening chapters, Ms Pilkington gives us an account of the initial interactions between the Aborigines and the first white settlers, and on through to the 1930’s when the incidents related in it occurred. Then things get much more specific, and she recounts, almost as if from a distance, the astonishing story of her mother and her aunt’s epic walk to freedom, as told to her by her mother.
I think this book is well worthy of reading purely because, with no fuss, it recounts the story of what happened to so many mixed race children in Australia. The assumption was made that the children of white fathers and Aboriginal mothers would be better off being removed from the ‘natives’ and raised in camps to be trained as domestic servants and so on – it’s important to note, not to be educated as white children were. The idea, inconceivable though it now seems, was to ‘assimilate’ them into white society, marry them to other half castes and eventually ‘breed’ them into white people. This continued in some parts of Australia into the 1970’s, and is often referred to now as the Stolen Generation. It is absolutely tragic, the more so because so many of the white men who fathered these children, enabled it.
Despite their families trying to keep them out of sight and thus safe from being taken, the girls were found and taken south in July 1931. Interestingly, in August 1930, a year earlier, the Government official responsible for the removal of mixed race children in that area, which had been assumed to be good for them as the pure blood natives rejected the half castes just as much as their white fathers generally did, wrote that the children ‘lean more towards the black than the white and on second thoughts, nothing would be gained in removing them’. A blinding flash of intuition for its time – nothing more than common sense to us today, when we understand that despite teasing or bullying because they are ‘different’, children are much better off staying with their own families as far as possible.
In this case, Molly, who was 15, and the two girls, Gracie aged 11 and Daisy aged 9 who were taken with her in 1931, manage to escape the camp after only a short time there, grisly place that it is, and although they had been taken down the coast by sea, she knows that the rabbit proof fence follows a north-south axis, and that if they find it and follow it north, they must arrive eventually home at Jigalong, from where they left, as it is on the fence.
The rabbit proof fence incidentally is another example of the white mans folly in Australia – the early colonists brought over rabbits amongst other things, initially to breed for meat, but then released to provide a ‘spot of hunting’. In the absence of significant natural predators, and with the warmth of Australia allowing them to breed year round, they ran absolutely riot across the land (a bit like the white man did). An attempt to stop rabbits invading Western Australia from the Eastern States was made by building a supposedly rabbit proof fence that ran between Starvation Bay near Esperance on the south coast up to Ninety Mile Beach, east of Port Hedland, effectively cutting off the bottom left hand side of Australia. 1,139 miles of flimsy barbed wire fencing – it failed to stop the rabbits, but provided a lifeline for these girls.
They did better than most kids their age these days would, surviving a thousand mile trek through the harsh Australian bush, feeding themselves on bush tucker and food they scrounged from homesteads, being careful to arrive and leave said homesteads and farms from different directions to avoid being retaken.
I shan’t give away the ending. I believe this is a book that should be read by all Australian school children certainly. The movie was an OK adaptation, but for me it is the matter of fact tone of the book that drives home the bloody awfulness of the truth. After years of campaigning, by the 1990’s things were changing, but even as of today, Australian Aborigines are mostly still living in far worse conditions and with a much lower life expectancy than white Australians.
In 2000, Phillip Knightley summed up the Stolen Generations in these terms:
This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.
I recommend reading the Wikipedia article above to learn more about the Stolen Generation. And although John Howard may not have found it in himself to apologise for his predecessors actions, I am genuinely sorry that this happened, not only to these three girls, but the countless others who were lost forever by their families, as was my Mum, who after reading this in 2005 rang me up to see if it was all a bit exaggerated ( I lived in Australia between 1985 and 2012). I was so sad to have to tell her, no, it’s all true.
It’s not a depressing read, for all that the subject matter is appalling. There is a great deal of humanity within its pages, and I recommend it to you all. I have Mum’s copy here which I should love to gift forward to someone – please contact me through here or on the Facebook page, Mums Books, if you’d like it, and in case it has already been claimed, here is a link to Amazon to purchase it for yourself.