Debesa: The Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez is a social history of the West Kimberley that spans four generations of Cindy Solonec’s family, beginning with the story of her grandparents and great-grandparents, and the impact of forced removals on children and parents alike. The central narrative, however, revolves around Solonec’s parents, Katie Fraser and Frank Rodriguez. Arriving in Western Australia from Galicia in 1937, Spanish man Frank Rodriguez intended to join the Benedictine monks at New Norcia. Instead, he met and married Nigena (Nyikina) woman Katie Fraser, herself a novitiate at the Beagle Bay Mission convent.
Not everyone in 1940s Australia approved of the interracial marriage, but their wedding marked the beginning of a life-long journey together. They bought a small sheep station, which they named Debesa, and started a family. In additional to her own childhood memories, Solonec draws on her father’s journals, and oral histories with her mother’s families, together with an extensive bibliography of other primary and secondary sources, to piece together her parent’s joys, triumphs and challenges on the remote property between 1953 and 1969.
Told honestly and matter-of-factly, but without bitterness, Debesa explores the grief, loss and injustice that results from casual and systemic racism. The overarching story, though, is one of connection—to family, community and culture, with the lives of Katie, Frank and their children being enriched by their Spanish, English and Aboriginal heritage.
Debesa is a valuable contribution to the history of the Kimberley told through the unique lens of Katie and Frank Rodriguez’s enduring love for each other and their life on the land.
About the author
Dr Cindy Solonec is a Nigena (Nyikina) woman from the West Kimberley, whose PhD in History from UWA forms the basis of Debesa. Dr Solonec lectures and tutors in addressing Aboriginal themes, is a member of the History Council of Western Australia and plays violin with Encore, a seniors’ all-strings orchestra. She is married with two daughters and five grandchildren.
Questions for discussion
- In the preface, Cindy Solonec writes, ‘So as I listened to my family’s narratives, my ancestors began to emerge in an almost life-like way’. (p. xiv). What do you think she means by this? Have you ever had a similar experience researching your own family history?
- The author begins the book with the stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents, including the two girls, Gypsy and Jira, being taken by the authorities and placed at Beagle Bay Mission. How do the girls’ families ensure they do not forget their homelands? How did you feel reading about the family’s experience?
- What insights do the first two chapters offer about the experiences of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley during the first half of the twentieth century? How do the personal stories of Cindy Solonec’s ancestors contribute to this?
- How does Cindy Solonec create a sense of place in this book, particularly but not exclusively to Debesa?
- How does Solonec portray life on Debesa?
- What skills and strengths does Cindy and other family members inherit from the cultures to which they are connected?
- How does Solonec convey her parents’ sense of welcome and hospitality towards others?
- In what ways does Mr Miller show a lack of understanding about the Rodriguez’s ‘extended Aboriginal families’ (see p. 218 for example) and what it takes to run the property? How might Mr Miller’s views be representative of broader societal attitudes at the time, and how do Frank and Katie challenge these?
- Have you read any other stories set in the Kimberley? How is the story Cindy Solonec is telling similar or different to other texts you have read?
- After reading this book, what do you understand that you didn’t before?
If you liked this book you might also like …
God, the Devil and Me by Alf Taylor, Magabala Books, 2021
Shadow Lines, Stephen Kinnane, Fremantle Press, 2020
My Place, Sally Morgan, Fremantle Press, 1987
Two Cultures, One Story, Dr Robert Isaacs with Tanaz Byramji, Magabala Books, 2021
The Boy from Birdum: The Bill Dempsey Story, Bill Dempsey & Steve Hawke, Magabala Books, 2021
Where the Fruit Falls, Karen Wyld, UWA Publishing, 2020
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, Black Inc., 2018