Doris Pilkington Garimara, First Nations Novelist, Dies at 76

Doris Pilkington Garimara, passed away on 10th April 2014 at 76 years of age. Doris was the author of 'Caprice: A Stockman's Daughter'(1991), 'Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence' (1996), 'Under the Wintamarra Tree' (2002) and 'Home to Mother' (2006), a children's version of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Doris Pilkington Garimara 1937 - 2014 (Sydney Morning Herald)

Douglas Martin The New York Times 20 April 2013

Credit Brent Bignell/European Pressphoto Agency

In the 1930s, Australian authorities undertook a campaign to force the native Aborigines into white culture, with the hope that intermarriage would eventually eliminate their race. Mixed-race aboriginal children were taken from their families and forbidden to speak their native language.

"Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget there ever were any Aborigines in Australia?" A. O. Neville, chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, asked in 1937.

The effort, little-known outside Australia, drew newfound attention when the movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence" came out in 2002, telling the story of a young girl who was taken from her family, escaped from a government re-education camp, and with two other girls walked for nine weeks through harsh desert, with only plants and small animals to eat, to reunite with her mother in their hometown.

The movie, which starred Kenneth Branagh as Mr. Neville, was based on the book "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" (1996), by Doris Pilkington Garimara, who died at 76 on April 10 in Perth, Australia. The cause was ovarian cancer, Australian press reports said.

L-R: Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan and Everlyn Sampi in the 2002 film "Rabbit-Proof Fence. (Miramax Films)

Ms. Pilkington Garimara based the book on the story of her own mother, Molly Kelly. But she, too, had suffered under the government campaign. As a young girl, she and her mother and sister were taken from their home in the early 1940s and sent to a camp. Her mother fled with Doris's younger sister, but was forced to leave Doris behind.

Doris Pilkington Garimara

(Brent Bignell/European Pressphoto Agency)

Not until Christmas Eve 1962 did Doris see her mother again. An aunt had told her who her mother was. Ms. Pilkington Garimara found out where she lived and took her children to meet her. That was when Ms. Kelly shared her story of her first escape and trek home, following a fence that bisects the length of Australia from north to south to protect farmland from hordes of rabbits.

"Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence," which helped awaken Australians to the plight of the Aborigines, was translated into 11 languages. The Australian Film Institute named the movie version the year's best film, and it won prizes at a dozen film festivals around the world.

Ms. Pilkington Garimara wrote three other well-received books about her life, and used her celebrity to press for the Aboriginal cause. She was an original member of the government-sanctioned Reconciliation Committee to repair relations between the white and native peoples and a principal promoter of National Sorry Day, an annual event started in 1998 to commemorate the government's mistreatment of Aborigines.

The focus of the day, held annually on May 26, is the "stolen generation": the Aboriginal children ripped away from their families. In 2008, the Australian government formally apologized to that stolen generation.

Ms. Pilkington Garimara was born Nugi Garimara. Her birth was unregistered, but the Department of Native Affairs later issued her the birth date of July 1, 1937.

Four years later, the authorities moved her, her mother and sister to a new settlement. Her mother ran away, taking her baby sister and leaving Doris with relatives. At 12, Doris was put in a mission, and at 16, she took advantage of a program to become a nurse's aide, rather than a servant in a white household. She later studied journalism.

As a young girl, she had taken the name Doris from the woman who employed her mother as a domestic.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002): Ningali Lawford, Laura Monaghan andEverlyn Sampi
(Ningali Lawford)

She married a man named Pilkington. "My husband was a very, very hard man," she said in an interview with Hecate, an Australian feminist journal. "He could be warm and loving when he wanted to be, but that side I didn't see much."

When she was 45, Ms. Pilkington Garimara returned to her mother's village to research a possible book. For years, she came back for periods of six to eight weeks. She relearned her original language. Her mother showed her the tree under which she was born. Ms. Pilkington Garimara extensively interviewed her Aunt Daisy, who had accompanied her mother on her 1,000-mile journey.

Her first book, "Caprice: A Stockman's Daughter" (1991), was a short novella inspired by her family and centered on the changing role of women over the course of the 20th century. Her other books were "Under the Wintamarra Tree" (2002) and "Home to Mother" (2006), a children's version of "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence."

The Australian news media reported that Ms. Pilkington Garimara is survived by four children, 31 grandchildren and 80 great-grandchildren. Two daughters died before her.