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As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her grand-daughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction. In their grief the women asked why their children should be taken from them. Their anguished cries echoed across the flats, carried by the wind. But no one listened to them, no one heard them.
My copy of this book is actually titled Rabbit-Proof Fence and features a photo from the Philip Noyce film of the same name as a cover illustration. I have never seen the film as I felt the material would upset me too much. The thought of families being torn apart is very distressing. It also bothers me that many Australian colonials would have been Irish and we too would have been subject to racial/cultural oppression, only to repeat the racist measures towards the Aborigine people of Australia. All in the name of progress of course.
Nugi Garimara opens her story with a quick study of the history of European colonization of Australia. The displacement of Aboriginal tribes continues the further inland white settlements move, with the cattle trails used by drovers also commandeering watering holes in the outback itself, ever shrinking possible locations for habitation. What inevitably followed was the introduction of slave labour and as a consequence of that, the emergence of half-caste children, referred to as muda-muda. This was blamed on the promiscuity of Aborigine women, with a blind eye being turned to their exploitation at the hands of the whites occupying what had been their land.
The story begins in 1931 with three muda-muda girls from Jigalong in Western Australia being chosen for re-education as a result of their half-caste birth. This was justified as a policy designed to protect children of mixed parentage. Often muda-muda were bullied by other native children for their lighter skin. Daisy, Molly and Grace were cousins who had come to think of one another as sisters, having bonded over their outsider status. The Australian government policy was to obtain children and train them to be employed in white households as servants. This was regarded as a form of rescue, for the belief was that children of mixed-race parentage were in fact more intelligent than native Aborigines and would therefore make better workers.
Molly, the eldest girl, Grace and Daisy were taken by a man named Constable Riggs to the Moore River settlement, hundreds of kilometers south of Jigalong. They travelled by car and by boat, far out of territory known to the three girls. When they arrived at Moore River they were forbidden from speaking in their native language and instructed in English. At the settlement they are befriended by another girl Martha Jones, who tries to help them adjust to their new surroundings. She warns them of the danger of trying to escape, as the authorities employ ‘black trackers’, to return girls who run away, who are then locked up and fed only bread and water. Some of the girls who had been captured were even shaved bald and patrolled around inside the building, so the other Aborigine girls could see what happened to those who ran.
Despite the danger, Molly tells her sisters to save what food they can and then one morning leads them out of the settlement and into the countryside. Using what hunting skills they have the girls live off the land at first, until they decide to visit houses along the way to beg for food. This gives them an opportunity to spread misinformation, informing the whites they meet that they are travelling to different destinations, as their movements are being reported back to the police with every sighting. Molly’s plan is a simple one. Make for the rabbit-proof fence that runs all the way north to Jigalong and try to avoid big towns that may have police officers looking for them.
This incredible true story is all the more effecting for the simple and direct manner in which it is told. Ironically it was thanks to Molly’s white father, who first told her about the rabbit-proof fence, that she was inspired to flee the re-education camp at Moore River. Garimara writes with unfeigned emotion, something I am not used to in historical books.
It is a very sad story. I have nothing more to say.