I was first exposed to this book in highschool English class, when I was still at a pretty low level of English, and had no clue there were even Indigenous people in Australia. I did not even really understand the concept of a rabbit proof fence, it always seemed so wild to me it had to be fictional. We read extracts (I understood maybe a word in ten), watched a scene or two of the movie, and bits of a documentary about Indigenous Australians and the tough conditions they had to live in due to systemic racism. I
It stayed with me, but how hard it had been to read compared to other book extracts we read that year, also stuck with me, so I never really looked into it more. I assumed it was beyond my level, written to be very obscure, as some nonfiction books can be.
Fast forward to this year, I’ve been living in Ireland for about 4 years and I don’t remember how it came to mind but I decided I had to read it again and see if I still found it hard.
I got it from the library and, my friends, it is so short? About 150 pages. And yet it’s one of the most impactful books I read this year.
I wanted to talk about this book, but at the same time I don’t want to do a straightforward review. I’m a white woman, living in Europe, and approaching this topic from a willing-to-learn perspective* but this is not my lived experience at all and I don’t want to be over here trying to pass a judgement on what I’ve read. Instead, let me just tell you about it (or tell you about the topic through this book).
What is Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence?
tw: colonialism, racism, prison, kidnapping, child abuse, mentions of rape
The book is essentially an account of the colonization of Australia, from the perspective of Indigenous people of the North West and the Pilbara desert, to give context to the life story of the author’s mother (more on that in a minute). The text is purposefully written in a narrative style close to the oral accounts that would be shared by these people, as the author explains: they would think of the world in terms of specific seasons or life events, rather than in years and dates.
It’s a well-needed perspective. My experience of being taught about Australia, even as someone who studied “English and American cultures and languages” at university (in Europe) is basically British convicts. Last month, a month or so after reading this book, I visited Cork and saw an exhibit at the Elizabeth Fort on women convicts who were kept there before being deported to Australia, usually Tasmania, for years of forced labour. They would be sent out with young children and babies, for crimes ranging from serious stuff like murder, down to stealing bread or a handkerchief. Their living conditions were horrendous. There were stories of women sent on a ship that capsized, and the few survivors were sent to prison/labour camp afterwards even so. The exhibit also explained that after doing their time, they would often be married off to men in the area – often men who’d also served their time. But what was missing from those accounts was the fact that England had no business sending people there in the first place – and was essentially sending murderers and convicts (although some, maybe most, were there for very small offenses) to a country that had by no means agreed to any of this.
Pilkington explains that, essentially, the Indigenous people were considered Barbarians, and because they did not speak the language of the English, it was “agreed” in a one-sided, condescending way, that these people were not a country, and were happy for the English to metaphorically plant their flag there and call it theirs. The early days also involved a lot of murders and kidnapping and rape of indigenous women, because of course.
That, however, is only the background. Pilkington makes her way from that to the story of her own mother and aunts, who were victims of assimilationist policies in the 1930s that involved taking away native children to put them into “native settlements” which were prison-schools for these kids to learn the good ways of the white people. The three girls in this biographical account all had white fathers, and if I understood correctly, the idea was to pull them away from their families to give them a white education in the hopes of making them “less” aboriginal, dilute the culture, etc. all under the guise of doing well by them as they’re “better” (because less dark) and so would only suffer long term from staying within their communities.
So the girls are taken away to the settlement, where if you try to escape you get put in solitary confinement – and they manage to escape and trek through half of Australia following the rabbit-proof fence (a continent-wide construction intended to stop the spread of invasive rabbits, brought to Australia by the colonizers of course), on foot, being given chase, having to survive from scraps and the charity of people who might turn around and denounce them to the cops, essentially. Being pursued for miles and miles “for their own good”.
It’s a very personal account for Pilkington: her mother was brought back to the so-called school again years later, and escaped a second time – making the trek a second time! – but she was raised there. This is not a happy story. You want to think that, once they reach their communities again, that is it. The authorities leave them be. But two of them actually get taken again, more or less soon after. It’s actually the story of a government that repeatedly goes after a minority within their country – one who should have sovereignty on that land – to crush them. And this is still visible to this day: for example, different sources estimate that indigenous Australians’ life expectancy is 17 years below non-indigenous Australians’, and this Amnesty article has some grim facts to report about current discrimination.
I do think we should talk about this as much as we talk about Native American peoples in the US and Canada, in the same way that we talk about residential schools there. In the same way that we talk about discrimination against Travellers here in Ireland. Part of it is that in Europe we’re so influenced by British and US media – US in particular – that you have to seek out anything about the rest of the (even English-speaking) world. And then we’re talking about a minority within one of those countries you don’t see much about already – therefore people with less of a voice.
I want to be able to learn more about their cultures, their history, their perspectives. It’s harder to find, of course, but I think it’s worthwhile. It’s something we as Europeans (our countries, our ancestors) had a hand in messing up, so it’s important for me to learn about.
I’m also grateful for my highschool English teacher who put the book in front of us. Even if only 10% of the text through to me, from a language perspective, the lesson stayed with me and taught me a lot, even years later.
On that note, if you have nonfiction recommendations on Indigenous peoples and nations of Australia, please let me know in the comments or send them my way.