Oh, Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, I’m getting SO close to finishing you!
Task #8 is an #ownvoices book set in Oceania, which comprises the areas of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. My libraries didn’t have much in the way of what Book Riot suggested, but with a little digging, I discovered they did have a copy of Rabbit-Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time by Doris Pilkington (Hyperion Books, 2002). It qualifies as #ownvoices because Ms. Pilkington was born Nugi Garimara, an Aboriginal Australian whose mother, Molly Craig, is one of the girls she portrays in this book.
I will admit that I know very little about the Aboriginal community of Australia, other than, much like the Native population of the United States, they’ve been treated terribly (one of the books I read in the past few years contained the phrase, “Colonization is violence,” and it’s something I’ve never forgotten). Rabbit-Proof Fence highlights exactly how terribly, beginning with a few stories of the native community of western Australia before the white men show up, and then revealing how much the Aboriginals’ lives changed once these white men began to force them off the land their people had lived on for thousands of years. There are content warnings that go along with this early part; rape and murder are, tragically, part of every story of colonization.
Molly, who would one day become the author’s mother, is known as a half-caste, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a white man. She, along with her two half-caste cousins, Daisy and Gracie, are forcibly taken from their families and sent to an institution for Aboriginal children with white fathers. This was done at the Australian government’s behest because it was their belief that half-caste children were more intelligent than full-blooded Aboriginal children, and, as Molly’s paperwork stated, they hoped that ‘they will grow up with a better outlook on life than back at their camp.’ (Similar horrors were perpetrated upon the Native children of America and Canada, if you’re looking to enrage yourself further.) The three cousins, along with a fourth girl named Rosie, are taken to the East Perth Girls Home at the Moore River Native Settlement. Upon arrival, they’re expecting a school but are instead greeted by a bleak, overcrowded dormitory where the doors are chained, the windows have bars, the beds only have sheets when important visitors tour the facilities, and there are small cells where children who break the rules are locked in, sometimes for weeks at a time, after being whipped.
Molly, the eldest, makes up her mind immediately that she and her cousins aren’t staying. Having been trained in bushcraft and survival skills by her stepfather, Molly leads the girls out the next morning, and for the next nine weeks, they make a barefoot journey that spans 1600 km (994 miles), following the fence built by the colonizers to try to prevent the spread of rabbits (that the colonizers themselves brought in, because there’s seriously no end to the problems caused by people arrogant enough to claim someone else’s land as their own). They sleep in rabbit warrens and out in the elements, eating rabbit, emu chicks, baby cockatoos, and a feral cat along the way, occasionally stopping by a farmhouse to beg for a decent meal. Barely managing to evade the authorities, the girls return home (without Gracie, who left to find her mother before reaching the end), but their stories have no happy endings. Colonization is violence. Never forget that.
God, this story is utter tragedy. Tragedy in what was lost, tragedy in what could have been lost, tragedy in that none of this story needed to occur because the girls’ families should have been left alone to live their lives. There’s a heartbreaking write-up where Ms. Pilkington details how the girls fared as they grew into adults. Daisy is the only one with a halfway happy story; Molly and Ms. Pilkington’s own lives continued to be marred by the brutal policies of the white men long after Molly returned home. So much heartbreak forced onto people who didn’t deserve it. So much pointless heartbreak.
Despite the sorrow that infects every page of this book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. Ms. Pilkington describes the customs and lives of her people with such love that it’s impossible not to be drawn in and want to know more. The girls’s dialogue is peppered with phrases from their Mardu language (there’s a glossary in back!), and having only seen Aboriginal Australian language in print a few times before this, I was fascinated. The mixture of strength and desperation that the girls must have felt in order to undertake such a journey is impossible for me to begin to fathom; even thinking about it makes me want to throw things. There’s seriously no limit to the horror that humans are eager to inflict upon one another, and it disgusts me that so many people continue to defend these kinds of policies.
A movie was made from this book in 2002; my library has a copy, so I may grab it this week when I return the book. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a short book, but it packs a punch. Don’t let that stop you; the story of these girls and all peoples native to Australia need to be heard.
Doris Pilkington, born Nugi Garimara, passed away in 2014.