by Trina Saffioti, illustrated by Norma MacDonald – Magabala Books, 2011
ages 6 to adult / Australia, diversity, powerful lives, s.o.s.e.
Have you seen this website? It’s a collection of personal testimonies from people of the Stolen Generation. They're so very personal and real that I feel like a welcome, if naïve, guest. Each testimony includes a short personal statement, many of which are about the value of telling the stories of the Stolen Generation. Here are just a few:
Harold Furber, who was taken from his family at the age of five, says:
"It’s part of healing for the individual and the family but it’s also important for the healing of Australia. Some of the demons or the not-so-good things in our history need to be brought out."
Marjorie Woodrow was ten when she was taken. She says:
"I want the world to know the story so we can work side by side together to make this place a better place to live in. Let’s have both histories side by side."
Clara Johnson was six when she was taken—and even at that tender age she fought with the policeman who took her. And still she says:
"The reason I want to share my story is to tell people that life must go on. It doesn’t matter whatever happens to you in life, you must go on. In that way, you soon find out that life is about progress. In life everybody is born to that effect, to progress in life, whether you take hold of it and really overcome all things that can affect you or just stay still and put up with whatever."
Daniel Forrester was around eight when he was taken and says:
"I don’t want Stolen Generations to be repeated and I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to know about the plight of Aboriginal people in the past."
And those are the very reasons that Stolen Girl is such an important book: for healing, for reconciliation, for progress and for prevention.
Stolen Girl tells the story of a young girl who is taken from her mother. In the children’s home where she is sent, she thinks back to her real home:
“She used to live with her mother in a corrugated-iron house with a huge yard that seemed to stretch to the sun.
Each morning, they would sit on the verandah eating damper thick with golden syrup and drinking sweet milky tea.”
Her memories and dreams of home stay with her as she learns reading and writing and as she cleans and cooks. The strength of those special connections to family and country carry her over weeks and months as she works out ‘how many steps to the river … and how long before they will realise she is gone.”
Finally, she opens the locked door and “takes her first step towards home”.
A few of many reasons to read Stolen Girl with a child you love:
There's hope and reassurance in the girl’s first steps towards home. Adult readers will know that many children who tried to escape were captured and returned, often brutally. That’s important information because history must always be respected and passed on as accurately as possible—but the stories of the Stolen Generation can be fearful for young children. They need to be tempered with hope for the future.
Because the girl is not named, she becomes emblematic of all the children. We’ll never know all the stories but in knowing one story we begin to validate all.
To honour and value lives that are different from our own we need to see the beauty in them and there is a truly lovely romanticism to the girl’s life at home: swimming, fishing, hunting, collecting sugarbag honey and evenings listening to stories around a fire. Recognising the beauty of that life increases the horror of taking someone from it—which in turn leads to compassion, empathy and, hopefully, a willingness to defend lives different to our own.
The pictures promise a better day—they're filled with emotion but even when the girl is despairing and tearful, there's a beautiful lightness in them.
Small shared experiences help to make the story real. All children need ways to hold onto the essence of who they are—names, songs and dreams are part of the fabric of childhood—and the girl's efforts to hold onto her true self are poignant and full of strength. One such moment:
‘she whispers her Aboriginal name to herself, over and over again. In the evenings she softly sings sending the notes beyond the iron fence far away to her mother’s fire.”
A reading hint:
After reading Stolen Girl, older children may benefit from watching Rabbit Proof Fence. It’s not really a movie for young children, but it was Max’s favourite when he was about six. We had it on DVD and he watched it over and over again until he felt that he knew the story and understood a little. It’s a memorable movie.
Stolen Girl is a singularly Australian story, but it should be told everywhere for the same reasons that we tell holocaust stories, or stories of slavery and oppression around the world: so that we can understand, learn from and overcome evil, while retaining a sense of the goodness and strength of ordinary people.