The documentation of any historical event and the knowledge about it is consolidated by combining many different types of evidence. Testimony is one of many sources that is used in bringing about knowledge of an event, and plays a very significant role in doing so. Testimony can be seen as a way of gathering experiences and memories of individuals who would not otherwise have a voice. Controversy over testimony and its contribution to history is posed in many ways. Doris Pilkington wrote ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ to transcribe the story of her mother, Molly, and her aunts, Daisy and Gracie, all of whom were members of the Stolen Generation- aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities during the 1900s. Pilkington’s narrative can be seen as an implied testimony of her mother and her aunt’s story, and used as a powerful tool in telling their experiences.
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The biographical novel follows Molly, Daisy, and Gracie’s journey and escape form the Moore River Native Settlement near Perth in Australia, a journey that involved hundreds of miles on foot to return home to Jigalong. They got there by following the Rabbit-Proof fence- a dividing line that ran across Western Australia: “We’ll find Rabbit Proof Fence, and follow it all the way home” (78). Pilkington reveals that the task of reconstructing the girls’ journey was not an easy one:
The task of reconstructing the trek home from the settlement has been both an exhausting and an interesting experience. One needed to have a vivid imagination, the patience of many saints and the determination to succeed despite the odds (xi).
Because Pilkington’s mother and her aunt were growing older, now in their late sixties and seventies, it was important to them that their story be told before they died (xi). By writing this testimony for her mother and her aunt she is serving as their voice and delivering their message about Australian history to the world.
Pilkington writes the girls’ journey in a very straight-forward manner, which compliments her novel functioning as a testimony. For example, she includes passages that reveal lack of emotion and elaboration: “Their festering sores were still aching and they could find no relief” (108) and “The trek had been no easy feat. It had taken months to complete and no one can take this moment of happiness and satisfaction away from them” (123). Even though Pilkington doesn’t constantly dress-up all of the girls’ struggles, the reader can still feel a sense of power in the writing to a certain degree. This is important in the function of testimony because it conveys the story in a clear and a somewhat objective way. Some examples of individuals who gave their testimonies can be heard on the Stolen Generations website. In an interview with Marita AhChee, an aboriginal child forcibly removed from her home in 1945 said: “Mum wanted people to know that it didn’t only affect the kids who were removed, but also their family, especially the mothers.” Herbie Laughton, removed in 1933, said, “I wish to share my story to the wider community and to educate the younger generation on the things that happened in those days.” And Ernie Sarah, removed in 1946, said, “Everybody keeps asking about my story so I tell it. I want people to learn from it.” When listening to the testimonies of the children who were actually removed from their homes and were victims of this horrific event, their voices and power in contributing to history are being preserved.
Testimony can include a wide range of texts: autobiographical narratives, oral histories, semi-official testimonies, and video testimonies, to name a few. Although this is not a personal account of Pilkingtons, she receives information through interviews wither her Mother and her aunt, and incorporates a certain level personal knowledge and information from geographic explorations during the 1900s. The novel can be seen as an autobiographical narrative not of Pilkington’s, but of her mother and her aunt’s experience, as well as a testimony for victims of the Stolen Generation.
When considering testimony as evidence Rosanne Kennedy analyses the very matter in her article “Stolen Generations: trauma historiography, and the question of ‘truth’.”
I discuss two approaches that may enable us to read testimonies not simply as evidence, which places the historian in the role of expert, nor as literature, which makes them marginal for history’s purposes of establishing what happened in the past, but as contributions to historiography in their own right.
While Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence does not necessarily serve as direct evidence to the removal of aboriginal children from their communities, it does contribute to history by introducing knowledge about the effects of these practices to the public that would not have been known otherwise. The world would have never know about Molly, Daisy and Gracie’s unimaginable feat had Pilkington not transcribed their story into a testimony for the world to see. At the end of Pilkington’s testimony the world knows the pain and suffering that the girls went through to overcome a horrific experience. Pilkington says in some of the final pages: “They had finally reached their destination and were reunited with their families. They had taken a great risk” (123). The reader can also hear a personal voice of those who were victims, which contributes to history by revealing an aspect that is otherwise unheard.
Pilkington wrote an implied testimony to preserve Molly, Daisy, and Gracie’s story and voice. Their struggles and hardships revealed in the novel will always function as part of the Stolen Generation history, which is why the use of testimony in documenting historical events is important. Preserving one’s voice who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to share their story is important. If Pilkington had not written about her mother and her aunt’s story, they would have been lost along with all of the other victims’ stories who did not get the opportunity to be heard.
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