Rabbit Proof Fence Book Essays

Life writing or Indigenous life writing?

Considering Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence as memoir and life writing

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is described as a ‘memoir’ by the Reading Australia Project. Many people have considered how this text and the form of the memoir belong to the genre, or type of text, known as life writing.

Life writing involves, and goes beyond, biography. It is a special form of creativity that involves using the writer’s memory, research skills and powers of description to tell a story. Life writing embraces the lives of objects and institutions as well as the lives of individuals, families and groups.

Marlene Kadar describes life writing as a ‘genre of documents written out of life or unabashedly out of personal experience of the writer’. Life writing includes texts which are fictional and non-fictional and which are linked by what Kardar describes as a ‘thematic concern of life or self’.

Critic and biographer Hermione Lee argues that life writing gives people different ways to tell their story through such forms as memoir, personal essay, autobiography, diary, journalism, letters, oral testimony and eye witness accounts, blogs, social media such as Twitter or Facebook, and even fiction. Lee argues that the process of life writing occurs when ‘the distinction between autobiography and biography is blurred’.

Max Saunders responded to Lee’s view of life writing by agreeing that the division between autobiography and biography is not so distinct. He observes how a ‘memoir of someone else, by virtue of the fact that you are writing about them because they are important in your life, will be part of your autobiography’.

What is a memoir?


‘Memoir’ comes from the Latin memoria, or memory. The word ‘memoir’ dates from the early fifteenth century. It comes from the Anglo French word memorie, meaning a note or something written to be kept in mind. The definition of a memoir as a ‘person’s written account of his or her life’ dates from the 1670s.

Memoir: definition

  • A memoir is a written account in which a person describes past experiences.
  • A memoir is a history or record composed from personal observation and experience of the subject matter.
  • Memoir is closely related to autobiography. In an autobiography the writer is concerned chiefly with themselves as their subject matter.
  • However, a memoir will be more concerned with external events. Writers of memoir have usually closely observed or played roles in the historical events they depict.
  • The main purpose of a memoir is to describe or interpret the events described.

Features of the text

The current edition of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence published by UQP contains:

  • a biography of the author
  • short reviews
  • a title page
  • a page with publishing details
  • a dedication
  • a table of contents
  • acknowledgments
  • a map
  • an introduction
  • eight numbered and titled chapters
  • a glossary of Mardujara words
  • a list of references.

Ask students to compile a list of the elements in their own edition of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Then ask them to reflect on what this list of elements reveals about the nature of this text.

  • What does each element help the author to achieve?
  • How might they persuade the reader that this is a true story?

Where to begin?

Many readers of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence will know the story of the girls’ journey from Philip Noyce’s film adaptation. They may be surprised to discover that the memoir starts at a far earlier time in the history of Indigenous Australians than does the film, which begins in the early 1930s.

Before shifting to the experiences of the Mardu people and the journey along the Rabbit-Proof Fence, the memoir depicts Nyungah (also spelled Nyungar and Noongah) society in the period prior to contact with the European colonists of Western Australia. The Nyungah are the Indigenous Australian people who first encountered European colonists following the temporary establishment of a British military outpost at King George’s Sound in 1826. The founding of the Swan River Colony in 1829 and the arrival and expansion of white settlement saw the Nyungah people suffer the loss of family, land, culture and autonomy. Doris Pilkington Garimara imagines and recounts their experience before she shifts to explore the impact of white settlement on the Mardu peoples.

Discussion questions

‘The Nyungah people who once walked tall and proud, now hung their head in sorrow.’ (Chapter 3:  The Decline of Aboriginal Society)

Ask students the following:

  • Discuss the reasons why Doris Pilkington Garimara chose to depict the events that occur prior to the journey of the girls along the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
  • Consider the characterisation of figures such as Kundilla and Yellagonga.
  • How are they depicted and why are they presented in such a manner?
  • What are the world views of Kundilla and Lockyer? How are they contrasted to reveal alternative views of land and culture?

The Introduction

Many readers may be tempted to skip over the Introduction but it is an important element of the text because of the ways it introduces the reader to some of the differences between the cultures and world view of white Australians and Indigenous Australians. The Introduction also reveals the challenges facing the writer in telling this story.

One strategy teachers might employ to engage students with the Introduction and the earlier chapters of the memoir is to use extracts from the audio book version. The memoir is read by Indigenous actor, narrator and director, Rachael Maza. The audio recording is available as a CD or MP3 from the ABC Shops and online (see Referenced works).

In the Introduction, Doris Pilkington Garimara reveals herself to be a literate and numerate historian who is writing stories about members of her family who are not literate or numerate in a Western sense. However, Daisy and Molly are literate and numerate in their own cultures. In the Introduction, the writer reveals she had to ‘synthesise . . . different forms of knowledge about time and place’ in order to tell the story.

Before students begin, ask them to:

  • Imagine you were writing a memoir about the story of your family.
  • Make a list of all the ways you would research their story.
  • Make a list of the challenges and problems you might face in trying to research and tell this story.

Discussion questions:

  • How does the Introduction reveal how Molly and Daisy think differently about time, place and the ways stories are told?
  • From your reading of the Introduction, what were the challenges facing Doris Pilkington Garimara when she attempted to tell this story?
  • How did she seek to overcome these challenges?
  • Describe some elements of the process used by Doris Pilkington Garimara to research and tell the story of her family.

Research: seasonal time

Nganjinanga calendar yamba kari. Yamba nganjin Bamangka juku nyajil-nyajil.
Yinya juku binalbajaku nganjin bama jarra yala.

We don’t have a calendar. Bama story goes by the tree. The tree knows better than we do.

(Peter Fischer, ‘Indigenous Australians’ knowledge of weather and climate‘)

Discuss with students how information about plants and animals and the seasonal calendar assisted Doris Pilkington Garimara to correlate the journey with the western calendar and western ways of thinking about time. Then ask students to research the use of seasonal calendars amongst Indigenous Australian cultures. They might focus on researching the seasonal calendars used by an Indigenous Australian culture whose traditional lands are located close to their school community. Useful information can be found on:

The Larrakia or Gulumoerrgin calendar is another rich online resource for teachers and students exploring the idea of seasonal calendars. Gulumoerrgin is the language for Darwin and the surrounding regions of Cox Peninsula and Gunn Point in the Northern Territory.

Glossary of Mardujara words

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence provides rich opportunities for students to consider the ways Indigenous life writing incorporates Standard Australian English, Aboriginal English and vocabulary from traditional languages such as Mardu Wangka.

Students should discuss the possible reasons for the inclusion of the Glossary of Mardujara words and the use of Nyungah and Mardujara vocabulary throughout the memoir. What is the effect of including such language in the memoir?

Close reading activity: survival guide

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is often read as a story of survival and resistance. Key to the success of the girls was their knowledge of the land that they had learned from their family.

This activity requires students to read the text closely for evidence of how the girls were able to complete their journey of over 1500 miles in nine weeks.

Ask students to:

  • Construct a manual or guide book which outlines how to survive in the bush while travelling along the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
  • Use evidence from the memoir to show how the girls:
    • concealed themselves from detection by the authorities
    • sourced food and water
    • sourced warmth and shelter
    • worked out their location and the direction in which to travel.

The table below could be used as part of a reading journal that students complete as they read Chapter Eight (which comprises over one third of the memoir):

 StrategyEvidence/QuotationChapter and page reference

Alternative approach

Students might instead prefer to complete this activity by developing another type of text.

Task: dialogue

Ask students to compose a dialogue between Doris Pilkington Garimara and her mother Molly in which they discuss how the three girls managed to survive during the journey from Moore River to Jigalong. The discussion should focus on the strategies that the girls used to survive in the bush and to evade detection and capture by the authorities. Students should include information on how the girls managed to acquire food and shelter and use their close reading of the text to inform this discussion.(ACELT1773)(ACELY1744)(ACELY1745)(ACELY1746)(ACELY1748)(EN5-6C)(EN5-2A)(EN5-1A)

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
as Indigenous life writing

It is worthwhile to allow the voices of Indigenous Australians to explain and define what is meant by Indigenous life writing. Daniel Browning, host of AWAYE! on ABC Radio National, describes it thus:

For a long time writing is something that happened to Aboriginal people. We all understand the power of the written word to turn other human beings into objects without a voice of their own. But more and more Aboriginal people are writing their own life stories. Whatever you like to call it – autobiography, biography, memoir – Indigenous life writing is emerging as a literary genre of its own.

In the same program, Frances Peters-Little, Indigenous Australian academic, musician and filmmaker, says:

Life writing is very quickly, it’s fast becoming one of the most popular ways that, internationally, people are learning about Indigenous peoples’ culture, life, history, life stories . . . autobiography and biography is really the voices of the people themselves who are getting that message across . . .

The nature of Indigenous life writing in Australia

Christine Olsen, screenwriter and producer of the film adaptation, Rabbit-Proof Fence,says this about the book: ‘The book was told very quietly, almost passively . . .’

Frances Peters-Little adds that it is:

. . . far more inclusive in the way Indigenous people talk about their life stories. We don’t say this is a story about me, we say this is a story about me, my people, my land . . . (it is) much more communal, personal and inclusive of our
family ties . . . It doesn’t have to be academic, formal . . . all people with all education levels, gender, goes across, gives more voices to more people to actually speak, have access. The mysterious thing about Indigenous knowledge is totally, you know, broken away . . . You have got that diversity . . . (that) vast variety of Aboriginal life experiences and they are all being expressed from those different views . . . you can have that voice . . .

Ask students to consider how Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence reflects the views expressed by Christine Olsen and Frances Peters-Little about the nature of Indigenous life writing:

  • How is the memoir a quiet and almost passive story?
  • How is it an inclusive piece of life writing?
  • How do we see that it is an academic and formal piece of writing? How does the reader see that it is not always academic and formal?


Names and naming: students compose their own life writing

Doris Pilkington Garimara says: ‘Any person who was a member of the Stolen Generations owns their story.‘

Names in Indigenous Australian cultures

Many Indigenous Australians may have more than one name. They may have a European first name and surname. They may have a bush name or traditional name from their own Indigenous language. They may even have a nickname. A nickname is a replacement name for a person or thing, often given in affection or familiarity. Sometimes a nickname will shorten a name.  A nickname might only be used by certain groups of people that you know. The word nickname dates from the fifteenth century Middle English word ekename, meaning an alternative name.

Doris Pilkington Garimara’s mother gave her the first name of Nugi. However, she was renamed Doris after Mary Dunnet, her mother’s employer at Balfour Down’s Station, expressed her belief that Nugi ‘was a stupid name’.

Many members of Indigenous Australian cultures also have a skin name. Some contemporary Aboriginal people will use their skin name in a way that is similar to a surname. Doris Pilkington Garimara uses the skin name (garimara, also spelled karimarra) of her mother as a surname.

Skin names are a feature of the kinship system in some Indigenous Australian cultures. The kinship system is a feature of the way Aboriginal people organise their society and family relationships. It is a complex system that determines people’s roles and how they relate to each other. It includes responsibilities and obligations to each other, in ceremonial business and in relation to the land. The kinship system will decide who an individual may marry, their relationships in ceremonies, their role at funerals and the way they can behave and interact with their kin. For more information, see the Central Land Council website.

In Mardu or Mardujara culture, the kin system consists of four sections or skin names. The number of sections or skin names can vary across different groups of Indigenous Australian peoples.

Section or skin name
 PanakaKarimarra Purungu
 Purungu Pal.yarri Panaka


This activity focuses on the significance and meaning of names and naming in people’s lives. Students have the opportunity to complete a piece of life writing and may choose between an activity that draws from their own life experience or one that is based on an interview with a family member or family friend.

This activity does not require students to complete life writing about a member of the Stolen Generations. These stories belong to them and students are rather given the opportunity to share their own stories or those from family members from whom they have sought permission.

Life writing about your names: pre-writing

  • Make a list of all the names people call you by.
  • In a table, identify who calls you by each of these names.
  • Are there any rules or preferences you might possess about who might be allowed to call you by a particular name?
NameWho calls you this name


Choice 1: Life writing about names

Compose a piece of life writing in which you explore the significance or origin of one or more of your names. This might include:

  • the meaning or symbolism of your first name
  • an explanation of the origin of your family name – or what some people might call surname. You may have more than one family name or surname.
  • an explanation of how you acquired a nickname.


Choice 2: Life writing about names: oral history and interview

Frances Peters-Little says:

Let’s not forget we are an oral history culture, with traditional oral histories, and that is our way of telling stories . . . We should be encouraging more and more
people to collect these oral stories to be recorded now. Go out and grab those stories . . . firsthand primary sources . . .

Let’s remember in terms of schools and academia, and whatever, the way in which the colonised society is dominated in education is because they wrote everything down. Well, now it’s about time we recorded all of our stuff so we can make up for the stories that haven’t been recorded and that has to be done orally.

The written manuscript of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence began when Doris Pilkington Garimara began to record in writing the stories told to her by her mother Molly. Indigenous Australian cultures have a tradition of oral storytelling. This task allows students to experience the collection of oral storytelling.

Students should interview a family member or family friend about the names they have acquired over their lifetime:

  • Ask them to begin by considering the ways their names have changed or been added to over their lifetime. (These changes or additions may be due to marriage, becoming a grandparent or through other connections to people and places.)
  • Please remember that the person who you interview owns their own life story.
  • Explain that you are completing a piece of life writing as part of your school work in English and that the audience will include your teacher.
  • Discuss with the person which of their stories they are happy to share with you orally and those which they feel comfortable being shared in a written form with a wider audience.
  • Use your notes from this interview to complete a piece of life writing about their names. You may write about all their names or just one or two of them.
  • Share a copy of your writing with the person you have interviewed.


Activity: describing and classifying Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

In reviews and articles, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence has been described in the following ways:

  • autobiographical novel
  • fictionalised account
  • true account
  • novelised version of history
  • true story
  • novel
  • life writing
  • non-fiction
  • Aboriginal literature
  • true story
  • biography
  • history

The Reading Australia project describes Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence as a memoir.

Allocate one or more of these terms from the list to small groups within the class.

  • First, ask students to provide a brief definition of the term they have been allocated.
  • Students may need to use a dictionary to seek out definitions of some of the terms on this list.
  • Ask students to explain, based on their reading, why the text might be described using this term. Do they agree or disagree with the use of this term? Are there particular parts of the text that merit the use of this term more than others?
  • Having read About the Author, the short biography of Doris Pilkington Garimara, ask them to explain why they believe Reading Australia prefers to use the term ‘memoir’ to describe the text.
  • How might considering this list of terms help students to understand the nature of life writing and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence?
  • Which elements of the text (have students return to their list of the elements of the memoir) feel more appropriate to or suggest the term they have been allocated?


How is the memoir a hybrid text? A hybrid is a mixed thing made of different elements.

Ask students to discuss:

  • Why do you think it suited Doris Pilkington Garimara to use elements of a range of texts in her piece of writing?
  • How might the form and structure of the text reflect her life experience?


Essay on Rabbit Proof Fence

The film Rabbit Proof Fence is reminiscent of a war story as the country has been invaded and taken over. The invaders are taking away the children and placing them in camps. Only three manage to escape on their epic journey home they must cross through enemy occupied territory, never knowing friend from foe.

The movie Rabbit Proof Fence and the book The Stolen Children: their stories edited by Carmel Bird aims to impose its values and attitudes on the responder, which compels the viewer to adopt this perspective, thus leading to a change. Both these texts use the language of empathy to impose their perspectives on their audience. This is effectively achieved through the use of a visual and oral medium as it allows the director to use empathetic language thus allowing the audience to enhance the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings. There are many techniques used to enable the audience to embrace this perspective.

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Phillip Noyce, director of Rabbit Proof Fence not only portrays the colonial setting of the time but also treats the story with respect and understanding of the cultural protocols that are required. The Film is authentic as it is based on a true story. The authenticity of the film can be proven as it has been recorded in the local press as well as in the archives of the department of Native affairs. Furthermore Molly and Daisy are still alive and footage of them is shown at the end of the film. This footage gives the film a sense of reality. The director Phillip Noyce ensured that the film was culturally appropriated, by employing Pilkington Garimara, Molly’s daughter who is also the author of Following the Rabbit Proof Fence, which the movie is based on. Molly can speak from personal experience, as she was part of the stolen generation. Phillip Noyce uses the universal language of emotions to change peoples perspectives of the stolen generation. This is achieved not just domestically but internationally.

The audience becomes emotionally overwhelmed during the children’s epic journey home. The audience are able to strongly identify themselves with the three girls due to the fact that they are young, innocent and powerless. The audience can easily connect with the girls for we have all been children. The viewer soon finds themselves on the children’s side, in their shoes and identifying with them, the viewer takes on the perspective of the stolen generation.

Carmel Bird has used a written text that contains a report of separate oral accounts of the indigenous peoples past she seeks to detail the differing situations and outcomes of these people. The film Rabbit Proof Fence stands as one story that represents them all. The distinct importance of the individual voices in The Stolen Children is replaced in the film by an intense visual. This visual representation emphasised through the use of symbols, such as the fence and the eagle, which symbolises Molly’s freedom. Rabbit Proof Fence stands as a cinematic analogue of Carmel Bird’s Stolen children.

The director uses film techniques to manipulate the audience’s perception to his liking. During the emotionally charged scene where a local policeman tears the girls from their mother’s arms, Phillip Noyce uses ground level camera angles that keep up with the action, furthernore emersing the audience in the traumatic action. Another film technique used is the first person film technique that has the effect of portraying the events of the stolen generations as if they were not witnessed out side the view of history, thus accurately capturing the brutality of government policy towards the indigenous population.

Another technique is the use of music to create the mood and atmosphere. Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack Long Walk Home draws power to the scenes. Gabriel has successfully blended traditional aboriginal instruments such as the didgeridoo with the modern instruments to withdraw dramatic emotion.

Molly’s perspective of the camp “I hate this place, makes me sick” drives her to take her siblings and commence a 1600 kilometre long journey back home, all they had to guide them was the rabbit proof fence a 1800 mile long landmark that bisects Western Australia from north to south. Ironically the same people who wanted to keep them from home had built the fence that guided them home. The decisive moment in the chase that structures Rabbit Proof Fence is the confusion between two rabbit proof fences. The girls have unwillingly found themselves on the wrong fence this mistake miraculously saved them from being recaptured by Mr Neville. The Rabbit Proof Fence is used as a device to enact the defeat of the unalterable linear of aboriginal people, over the attempt at systematic genocide. Thus drawing a parallel between Aboriginal liberation and incarceration.

A.O. Neville the protector of aborigines represents the opposing perspective of the government; he is portrayed as a cold but ‘rational’ character that believes in his cause. A British actor plays this character in order to highlight that the racist perspectives are remnants from the British Colonial era. Neville administrates the governments “assimilation” program that’s aim was to separate half-cast aboriginal children from their families and culture to then convert them to Christianity and domesticate them. The perspective of the white people at the time was that by integrating them into the white society and breeding them out they would be saved from their own “primitive savagery”.

“By the third generation the aboriginal has simply been breed out“

“in spite of himself the native must be helped”

“The problem of half cast is not simply going to go away. If it is not dealt with now it will fester for years to come. These children are that problem.”

These quotes provide sufficient evidence that the forced removal policies were an attempt at systematic genocide.

The loss of identity. culture and family that is so profoundly emphasised in the voices section of The Stolen Children is also seen in Rabbit Proof Fence. The mission is where the indigenous people are stripped of their linear; this is depicted in several ways. They are not allowed to speak their own language this lead to loss of language culture. The longer you seem to be at the mission the more of your culture you forget.

“They have no mothers, no body have got any mothers.”

This quote creates a visual image of daughter cut off from connection with mother. This imagery is also use on the front cover off Carmel Bird’s text. In the introduction she talks of a severing from the umbilical cord.

This is a powerful movie that strikes at the heart of Australian history and its current values. Furthermore is has effectively changed the perspective of the viewer and internationally informed many of the suffering of the stolen generations. The movie has also brought up the issue of a national apology.

“Something needs to jolt our political leaders into action on Aboriginal reconciliation. Hopefully this movie proves to e the catalyst.” John Hewson. former national Liberal leader.


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