Debesa, the story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez by Cindy Solonec

‘As I read through my father’s diaries, I often wondered how he ever managed to fit everything in .’

Debesa is a rich family history set in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. Ms Solonec starts her family history in the 1880s, when her maternal great-grandfather, Jimmy Casim arrived in Fremantle from India. He moved north, met, and lived with Nigena woman, Lucy Muninga on Yeeda Station near Derby. Her father, Francisco (Frank) Rodriguez, arrived in Fremantle on 17 August 1937 as a Benedictine novitiate. He met Katie Fraser, formerly a novitiate at a convent for ‘black’ women, in 1946 and they married later that year. Not everyone supported their marriage. In Australia in the 1940s interracial marriages were opposed by many.

But from 1946 until Katie’s death in 1994, Frank and Katie worked together. They worked hard, raised a family, established their small sheep station at Debesa and remained connected to their own cultures.

‘Regardless of the overriding thrust by governments that all Australians would eventually live an Anglo-Australian way of life, our parents continued to embrace their respective cultures.’

This is an uplifting story of love, of cultural difference, of devotion and hard work set against a background of social challenge and change. Ms Solonec writes of two mutually respectful people working together to provide the best they could for their family and their community. An inspirational story drawn from Frank Rodriguez’s diaries, research and family interviews conducted by Ms Solonec.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

‘Not a good place to live, Boss, too flat!’

In 1838, White settlers are moving into the Wiradyuri country around Gundagai. Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, advises one of those settlers, Mr Bradley, not to build on the Marrambidya floodplain. It may not have flooded recently, but it will flood. His advice is ignored.

In June 1852, Wagadhaany is working for the Bradley family, in the house being built in 1838. Heavy rainfall followed by devasting floods result in lives being lost. Yarri saves Wagadhaany and some of the Bradleys. When the Bradleys move from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga, Wagadhaany must move with them. Away from her miyagan, away from all that is familiar.

‘She hates being the Black woman who just has to do what the White people tell her. She is grateful to be alive, but she hates that being alive reminds her that she is still powerless in her own life.’

Wagadhaany dreams of a better life, of returning to her family and country. Her mistress, Louisa Bradley, wants to help the local Black children but how can Wagadhaany explain, from her position of powerlessness, the cultural differences? Will Wagadhaany find a life of her own?

Most novels about the 19th century European settlement of Australia are written from the settlers’ perspective, with occasional reference to the Indigenous people. This is the first novel I have read from an Indigenous perspective, with Wiradyuri language and customs gently requiring me to look at history from a different viewpoint. Wagadhaany and her family came alive for me, as did their relationship with country.

This is a beautifully written novel which took me into a world I thought I knew from a new perspective. I liked the way Anita Heiss’s use of Wiradyuri language made me stop to work out meaning from context (there is a glossary included at the end of the book). And while I was working out meaning, I reflected on the impact of European settlement on traditional life. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it.

Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Love Objects by Emily Maguire

‘Nic’s shoes had always worn unevenly.’

 Forty-three-year-old Nicole (Nic) Miller lives on her own in Leichhardt, Sydney. She collects stuff: some because it needs a home, some because it might be useful and newspapers because they will increase her trivia-related knowledge. Nic cares for the local stray cats (which makes some of her neighbours angry) and works in a local store.

Nic’s niece, twenty-year-old Lena Harris, has moved to Sydney to attend university. She and Nic catch up over lunch each Sunday. Lena works shifts in a shop and lives in university accommodation. Lena’s had her eye on Josh for two months and looks forward to getting to know him more intimately. And she does.

On Sunday, when Lena goes to meet Nic for lunch, Nic doesn’t turn up.  Nor does she answer her phone. Lena goes to her house. Lena is devastated to find Nic injured and unconscious under a mountain of stuff. She and the police manage to clear enough of a passage into Nic’s house for the paramedics to retrieve Nic, who is taken to hospital.

But clearing Nic’s house so that she can return to it is only one of the problems Lena has to deal with. Her encounter with Josh was filmed without her knowledge and has gone viral. Her phone keeps pinging with lewd photographs and comments. And then her brother Will turns up.

The story unfolds through chapters by Nic, Lena and Will. In Nic’s chapters, it is easy to see how (and why) she has become a hoarder. Nic is collecting memories and she does not see the objects she collects as inanimate. Each object has a story, a history. While Lena and Will are trying to clear Nic’s home to make it safe for her to return, Nc will be devastated. Through Lena’s chapters we see how dehumanising and devastating the video of her encounter with Josh is. She can keep herself occupied by clearing Nic’s home, but other aspects of her life are crumbling. And Will, who has lost his job and is coping with a relationship breakdown as well as physical pain from an infected tooth helps Lena but is caught up in his own issues.

Nic returns home, angry and upset about the amount of her precious stuff that Lena and Will have discarded. How can each of them move forward?

I found this a thought provoking read, with touches of humour and heartbreak. Each of the three characters was well developed, each of them came alive for me. Three people, caught up in family history, each needing to find a way ahead.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Witness by Louise Milligan

‘You don’t sleep the night before that first day in court.’

I am uncomfortable. I am angry. I am sad. No wonder so few victims of sexual abuse make it to court. Forget justice, think of the pain of being retraumatised as you live through the experience (or experiences) again and again. In this book, Ms Milligan writes of those survivors courageous enough to go to court. And there’s Ms Milligan’s account of her own experience as a witness and her harrowing report of cross-examination when she was called as a witness in the trial of R v George Pell.

‘Most had lived with the pain but had never been through the legal process. It was all too much. Meeting them always reaffirmed the sense of doing all of this for the right reasons. Thinking of them now reaffirms why I am writing this book.’

I read this book torn between admiration for those brave enough to try to seek justice and furious at a process which retraumatises victims and seems to take no account of the trauma already suffered. Surely, Australia, we can do better than this in the twenty-first century? Adversarial court proceedings where aggressive well-paid defence lawyers seem to determine outcomes, regardless of truth? Ms Milligan worked on this book for almost five years: speaking with courageous victims, with doctors, with members of the legal profession including judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers.

‘Why does the court system allow adults to speak to kids in a way that might see them dismissed if they treated a young person like that in the workplace.’

Read it and weep, but read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Olive Cotton by Helen Ennis

‘Olive Cotton is recognised as one of Australia’s most important photographers of the modern period.’

Olive Cotton (11 July 1911 – 27 September 2003) was one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers. Her obsession with photography began when, aged eleven, she received a Kodak Box Brownie camera. Olive was a childhood friend of Max Dupain’s and in 1934 she joined his fledgling photographic studio, where one of her best-known works, ‘Teacup Ballet’ was photographed circa 1935.

But who was Olive Cotton? What is her story? Apart from her photographs (a retrospective exhibition in Sydney in 1985 drew critical acclaim), Olive left few material traces of her life when she died in 2003. Helen Ennis has pieced together Olive’s story from a variety of sources including her own friendship with the artist, from Olive’s children Sally and Peter McInerney, the private papers of Max Dupain, and the personal items Olive kept in a trunk on the property near Cowra, NSW, where she lived for more than fifty years.

I was intrigued by Olive’s story: a childhood of relative privilege, a university education (at a time when few women attended), a brief marriage to Max Dupain (between 1939 and 1941).  We have no insight into why this marriage failed, only that Olive left it and Max was subsequently granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion. Olive later married Ross McInerney and they lived in a tent (without electricity or running water) for several years before buying ‘Spring Forest’ where she lived for the balance of her life.

Around the biographical facts we have about Olive Cotton, Helen Ennis writes of the challenges of trying to balance the competing needs of marriage, children and family with art and the need to earn income.

The book includes several Olive Cotton’s photographs. While I have seen some of these as prints, others were new to me. I would love to see these images reproduced on photographic paper.

I finished the book knowing more about Olive Cotton and with a greater appreciation of her work.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan

‘Forgetting their childhoods had been essential for their survival, but it came at a cost.’

Sue-Ellen Doherty was one of three children born into a family of spies. Both her parents, Dudley, and Joan, worked for the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in the 1950s and 1960s. While Joan’s work for ASIO was unpaid after 1953, she saw it as her patriotic duty to help protect Australia from Soviet infiltration.

The children, Mark (born in 1951), Sue-Ellen (born in 1953) and Amanda (born in 1958) were trained to be observant by their parents. They were taught to memorise number plates, to notice unusual behaviour and to not draw attention to themselves. While they were also taught that not to lie, they were told to keep the entire truth within the family.

Years later, and keen to find out more about her father, Sue-Ellen approached Queensland-based journalist Sandra Hogan to help her. While this book is the product of their collaboration and research, it took many years to complete. It was not until 2011, when Joan Hogan was interviewed for part of an official history of ASIO, that much of the secrecy around the Hogan’s work was lifted. ASIO confirmed that the Dohertys were free to talk about the work they had done half a century before. Ms Hogan verified as much of the information as she could, and the siblings spoke with each other about their experiences.

This is an interesting book, both for the events described and because of the impact on the Doherty children. Sue-Ellen was looking for answers and trying to sort fact from fiction in her memory. Being unable to question events as they happened, being unable to talk about what was observed can make it difficult to form reliable memories. There are flashes of humour in this account, as well as tragedy.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

‘If you want to forge a path of your own, you must find a way to make your time in New South Wales work for you.’

Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in New South Wales in 1790 with her husband John, a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. At the end of 1809, Betsey Macquarie arrived with her husband Lachlan, who took up his duties as New South Wales Governor on 1 January 1810. In this novel, Ms Williams imagines a friendship between Elizabeth (Betsey) Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur.

I admit to having reservations about this novel: I have read a few novels recently, where the lives of historical women (including novels about both Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie) have been imagined. Sometimes such novels can bring historical figures alive, other times they insert imagined details that have me wishing that the novelist had chosen entirely fictional characters. While I cannot quite envisage the Betsey Macquarie that Ms Williams writes of, I have no difficulty recognising Elizabeth Macarthur. My reservations fade quite quickly as Ms Williams immerses the reader in the politics and challenges of this period of Australia’s colonial history. I recognise many of the historical figures and events from other reading.

By the end of the novel, through the personal trials and tribulations each woman (and her family) suffers, I can envisage the shape of such a friendship, the competence of each woman, and the challenges faced.

If you are interested in novels depicting strong women set in colonial Australia, I recommend this novel.

‘In a place where there are so few educated women, Elizabeth knows her friend’s absence will leave a gaping hole.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Sisters of Freedom by Mary-Anne O’Connor

‘Daughters of freedom, the truth marches on, Yield not the battle till ye have won!’

Sydney, December 1901. The states have federated, the Commonwealth of Australia has been formed. But Australian women have not yet been enfranchised, and many would like to see this changed.

The Merriweather family gathers to celebrate Christmas: Albert, Harriet, and their daughters Agatha (Aggie), Frances (Frankie) and Ivy. Aggie has been married to Robert Stapleton for three years. She volunteers in an orphanage and is longing to have her own children. Frankie is a dedicated advocate for women’s rights, and is determined never to marry while Ivy, who loves art and colourful clothing, hopes to marry Patrick Earle, a law student, and have a family. Three different sisters, each with her own dreams for the future.

Ivy has an accident which changes each of their lives. Patrick has left her briefly on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, and when he returns, she is gone. Riley Logan, travelling up the river by boat, comes across Ivy and takes her to his sister Fiona further upriver. Riley does not have the time to take Ivy downriver and he knows that there are some unsavoury characters lurking nearby. Fiona, her husband George, and their twin daughters live in a small shack by the river. Fiona helps Ivy and the two of them become close. Ivy does not forget them when she returns home, and the Merriweather family is grateful to Riley and Fiona for their help, and Ivy wants to establish a school along the river. She and Riley intend to work together to achieve this, but once Ivy becomes engaged to Patrick her plans are halted.

Ms O’Connor’s story takes us though several issues affecting Australian women including poverty, domestic violence, and the fight to enfranchise women. While two aspects of the storyline were resolved just a little too neatly for me, I was more than happy with the ending. Suffice to say that the path of true love does not always run smoothly.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Million Things by Emily Spurr

‘Silence isn’t really silent.’

Suddenly, Rae and her dog Splinter are on their own. Her mum is gone. Rae’s determined to manage on her own. She can use her mum’s debit card to buy food and pay the bills, she can take care of Splinter and, if she keeps the front yard tidy, perhaps she will be left alone. Rae is afraid though, and while she knows she cannot trust the world, she is afraid that people will learn that her mum is gone.

This novel portrays Rae’s life for fifty-five days as she takes care of herself and Splinter. Rae’s used to her mum disappearing for a while, she knows what to do. But this is not the same.

Next door lives a grumpy old woman called Lettie. Lettie has her own secrets, her own ways of keeping people at arm’s length. Rae is worried about what will happen when her money runs out, and when her mother’s absence is noticed. Rae rescues Lettie after a fall, and the two of them form an unlikely but guarded alliance. Then there’s Lucy down the street who keeps wanting to speak with Rae’s mum, and her son Oscar who want to be Rae’s friend.

What a wonderful debut novel this is. Lettie and Rae are well realised characters, each dealing with difficult situations and relaxing into a comfortable companionship. But Rae cannot keep her secret, especially after she receives an eviction notice.

And the ending? You will need to read it for yourself.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Hope Flower by Joy Dettman

‘You want to run so far and fast but you know that if you do, you’ll eventually have to turn around and come back, so why bother running?’

Lori Smyth-Owen, almost 15 years of age, is the only girl in a family of twelve: their mother Mavis had eaten herself into morbid obesity, their father is dead. Some of the brothers have left but Lori and those who remain have learned how to manage their lives without drawing the attention of the authorities in the (fictional) Australian country town of Willama.

‘It was a blur of life without a signpost marking the way.’

Because the children have reduced Mavis’s food intake, she loses two-thirds of her weight. This may prove to be a mixed blessing: a more mobile Mavis might be a more effective parent, but she is volatile and has mental health issues. And a mobile Mavis could undermine the coping strategies the children have in place to keep the family together.

‘Kids raised in that house had learnt early to put aside disappointment and to get on with life.’

Mavis (‘Mave’) emerges from her cocoon of fat, ready to tackle the world. Her increased mobility makes her difficult to manage, her self-absorption means that she has no time (or interest) in effective parenting.

What can I tell you about this bittersweet rollercoaster ride of a novel? It is unbearably sad in parts, while humorous and hopeful in others. I understand it is a sequel to ‘Henry’s Daughter’ (which I have now bought but not yet read). While I am in awe of the ingenuity demonstrated by the children and their survival skills, the parent in me wanted to walk into the book and intervene. Yes, these characters become real. The children are incredibly resilient (mostly) and while their family history may not be what they thought it was, there is some hope for the future. Eventually.

Heartbreakingly sad and ultimately hopeful.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and PanMacmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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