By Susan Horsburgh
December 09, 2002 12:00 PM

In the Western Australia outback, on the edge of the Pilbara Desert where they were born, cousins Molly and Daisy Craig amble over to a weather-beaten stretch of wood and barbed wire that once saved their lives. For nearly 50 years, the fence stretched unbroken for 2,000 miles from the north of the continent to its south, a barrier to stop pestilent rabbits from crossing state lines. But for the Craigs it was much more. Molly and Daisy and another cousin were taken from their families 70 years ago in a government attempt to assimilate Aborigine children into white society. The three girls escaped on foot and walked across 1,000 miles of wild bush and desert, eventually following the fence home. Now, looking down at the fallen barrier, Daisy jokes, “At least we are still standing.”

Standing, perhaps, but not unscathed. In the film Rabbit-Proof Fence—which opens nationwide Nov. 29—their extraordinary story exposes a painful chapter of Australian history that has riven the country for years. From 1905 to 1971, tens of thousands of part-Aborigine children like Molly, now 85, and Daisy, 82, were removed from their families and reeducated as domestic servants or farmworkers. A 1997 government inquiry revealed a legacy of families divided and a culture eroded. Since then, Australians have been debating whether their government should formally apologize and provide reparations to the so-called stolen generation.

In one of Fence‘s more brutal scenes, a police child-snatching squad is sent in to raid the Aborigine camp the Craigs called home. But critics argue that the reality was more complex: By taking children out of impoverished conditions the white authorities “thought they were acting in an altruistic way,” says Robert Manne, an associate professor of social sciences at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Still, “the aim was to breed out the Aborigine in them,” he says. “They didn’t think Aborigines were fully human, so they didn’t think they would suffer that much.”

However misguided their intentions, “what was unforgivable was that they turned us against our own culture,” says Molly’s daughter Doris Pilkington, the author of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, the book on which the film is based. “They made us believe our own families were savages.”

For the Craig family, it all began in 1931, when 14-year-old Molly and her cousins Daisy, 11, and Gracie, 8—all fathered by white workers at Jigalong, a fence-maintenance outpost in Australia’s remote northwest—were taken on a two-week journey by horse, steamer, train and truck to Moore River Native Settlement, an English-style boarding school near Perth. Locked in a dormitory, forbidden to speak their own language, the girls fled after two nights. The reason was simple, says Molly, who speaks in halting, broken English: “I was going home to Mummy.”

With only a few crusts in their pockets, the trio embarked on their odyssey, outsmarting search parties as news of their escape crisscrossed Western Australia. Sleeping in makeshift branch shelters, they caught and ate rabbits and drank water from creek beds. Farmers’ wives gave them food, coats and directions. As the lush pastures gave way to desert, the sharp grass lacerated their feet, so Molly carried her cousins piggyback.

When they reached the fence after a matter of weeks, they still had 500 miles to go. Gracie gave up when she heard her mother was at a settlement nearby, and she was soon recaptured. But one sunny, still afternoon two months after they set out, Molly and Daisy finally made it home, entering the camp to the wails and sobs of their families. “We were tired, [but] we always thought we would make it back,” says Daisy. “We never had a doubt.”

Their pain, however, was not over. Ten years after they returned, Molly, then 24, was persuaded by authorities to return to Moore River so that her own children, 6-month-old Annabel and 3-year-old Doris, could be schooled there. A year later, Molly again walked the 1,000 miles home after hearing of the death of a relative. This time she carried Annabel, leaving Doris behind. “No one was really surprised she was able to do it again,” says family friend Kate George, 45, a community worker in Jigalong. “But Molly was so quiet and modest hardly anyone knew exactly what she had done.” After she staggered back into Jigalong, authorities took “quarter-caste” Annabel away. To this day Annabel, who grew up thinking she was a white orphan, refuses to acknowledge her mother. When relatives visit Molly, the first—and often only—thing she says is, “Any word?” as she asks over and over about the child taken from her 60 years ago.

Doris, meanwhile, grew up in a Christian mission and didn’t see her mother for 20 years. Refusing to train as a maid, she became a nursing assistant in 1955 and married a former soldier, Gerald Pilkington. It was 1962 when she tracked down her mother and arranged to visit her at the outback camp. Brought up a well-educated Christian white girl, Doris was horrified by what she found. “It was a godforsaken place,” she recalls. “I was shocked by the poverty and the brutality of the culture.” Nor was Molly especially pleased to see her daughter. “There was no bond between me and my mother,” Doris says.

But years later Doris began to reclaim her Aborigine heritage. In 1981 she left Gerald, the father of her six children, and went back to school to study journalism. Two years later she moved to Jigalong to spend time with Molly, but she still knew nothing of her mother’s childhood journey. “The first we knew,” says family friend George, “was when it came out one night while storytelling.” As Daisy told the tale, Doris jotted down notes, and later verified the facts through official records.

Now a bestselling author, Doris has sent her book and invitations to the film premiere to her half sister Annabel, 63, who lives in a predominantly white middle-class suburb in South Australia, but the packages are always returned. Back in Jigalong, Molly still hopes for a reunion. There, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest city, she and Daisy say they are content, although they live in what most Westerners would call squalor. Thin and frail, Molly sleeps on a camp bed on the porch of her simple government-built home, while the more jolly Daisy holds court on her mattress, placed in the middle of her yard next to a burnt-out car.

The critical success of Rabbit-Proof Fence in Australia hasn’t changed their lives—money means little in their traditional culture—nor has it soothed the anger and loss. As she prepares to return to her own family, Doris kisses her mother goodbye, and Molly grips her arm, looks up at her and asks once more, “Any word?”

Susan Horsburgh

Kevin Airs in Jigalong