Books & Literature

Book Review: Debesa, by Cindy Solonec

HISTORY: This extraordinary and heartfelt story chronicles the lives of the Rodriguez family of Debesa Station in the West Kimberley; their livelihood through difficult times, love of family, place and culture, and the challenges of day-to-day living on a small sheep station amid huge pastoral properties.

A fine take on a personal subject.

The history of modern Australia holds many moments for which the European settlers should hang their heads in shame, and many books have been written about the dark deeds of the past. Yet, in Debesa, Dr Cindy Solonec, a Nyikina woman, while not flinching from revealing another chapter of Australia’s dark past, also endows it with a sense of life, of family, of place and of hope.

Debesa is the story of Dr Solonec’s family, from the time her grandparents Jira and Yoolya were removed from their people to be “educated” by the white settlers of the West Kimberley region, to her youth growing up on the sheep station of the book’s title. It is also a story of the Kimberley, and the Nyikina people. It is an attempt to record the oral and written history of a family, the Rodriguez family, and to show us how they lived.

Dr Solonec begins her story impartially, giving us the background of the Kimberley region from the point of view of both white settlers and the Nyikina people who had lived there for many thousands of years. It is a story of apocalypse, of destruction, and we see in gut-wrenching scenes the removal of children and their subsequent “education”. We see her grandmother and grandfather become distanced from their people while finding each other and starting a family. We see the birth of a daughter, Katie, and her marriage to a Spaniard, Frank Rodriguez. Dr Solonec shows us first-hand the struggles fought by an Aboriginal woman and a Spanish man in the 1940s and 1950s. It would be easy for Dr Solonec to focus on this aspect of their lives alone but instead she shows us the respect her father gained as a builder of houses and churches, and of his life as the manager of a large sheep station.

This is a memoir, but much of it is second-hand, taken from Frank’s diary entries and the memories of long-ago conversations. This can run the risk of becoming dry but Dr Solonec has chosen her tales well, and all of them feel lived in, full of heart and humour.

A triumph of the book is the characters that infuse it with life. As we follow Frank and Katie through their ups and downs we see life through their eyes. The end, when it comes, feels personal.

This is a personal book, in which Dr Solonec has laid bare her family history in order to show it to the world, and she should be thanked and congratulated for the interesting story she has given us.

Reviewed by DC White

Distributed by: Magabala Books
Released: May 2021
RRP: $24.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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