Biography Nancy Cato

Nancy Cato

photo of Nancy Cato
  • Time Period1917 - 2000
  • Place
  • CountryAustralia

Poet Biography

Nancy Cato was an acclaimed author. She published several historical novels and biographies and two volumes of poetry. Cato was also a strong campaigner for environmental conservation.

Career Highlights

Born in Adelaide, South Australia 11 March 1917. Died in Noosa,Queensland 3rd July 2000. Schooled at the Presbyterian Ladies College. Started a professional writing career as a cadet journalist on the Adelaide News at age 18. Later an art critic for Adelaide News. Became a freelance writer. Edited the Jindyworobak Anthology (1950). Actively involved in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Australian Society of Authors during the 1950s and 1960s. Books include Green grows the vine, Brown sugar and "All the rivers run", which was made into a TV mini-series. Published other prose works, two volumes of poetry and contributed to Australian literary magazines. Another major work was "Mister Maloga" a story of Daniel Mathews and his Maloga Mission to Aboriginal people on the Murray River in Victoria. Married Eldred Norman, and travelled overseas extensively with him; had one daughter and two sons. Strove for ultimate skill as a writer, and for protection of the Australian environment, particulary in the face of developers on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Awarded the Alice Award (1988) by the Society of Women Writers; the Advance Australia award for environmental campaigning; an Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Queensland; and was a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

Nancy Cato
Novelist and poet capturing the spirit of the Australian outback

The first published novel of the Australian writer Nancy Cato, who has died aged 83, was a bestseller. All The Rivers Run (1958), a saga of life along the Murray, Australia's largest river, made her modestly rich and famous, popularised Australia overseas and became a television series.

The novel took a decade to write, and its success, especially in the United States, enabled Cato to give up journalism - she had been the Queensland correspondent of the Canberra Times - and focus on her writing and love of conservation. The book became the first of a trilogy - with Time, Flow Softly (1959) and But Still The Stream (1962) - which, when published in a single volume, became popular around the world.

Ever the patriotic, fifth-generation Australian, Cato was unimpressed when her British publishers mistakenly put a Mississippi steamer, with its stern paddle, on the cover instead of a Murray steamer, whose paddles are amidships.

Cato had discovered the Murray river on a holiday in the 1930s. Her family believed the first novel's leading character, Philadelphia Gordon, was in part modelled on the author, who married at 24 and had three children in three years.

In all, Cato wrote more than 10 big novels, often featuring strong, outback women. She also produced volumes of poetry, short stories and The Noosa Story: A Study In Unplanned Development (1979), an environmental work about her adopted Queensland home.

She started writing at the age of eight - when she composed a short poem about a violet - and 10 years later won a short-story competition run by the News, the local paper in her hometown of Adelaide. Her imaginary "interview" with Oliver Twist led to her being taken on as a trainee journalist - with time off to go to university - but she recalled that, as a woman, she had to fight to get into the reporters' room.

In 1941, she married the racing driver Eldred Norman and started writing seriously. There were short stories in the Bulletin magazine and, in 1950, she published her first poetry collection, The Darkened Window.

Cato was a founder member of the Lyrebird Writers, a group that published verse collections, and was part of the Jindyworobak literary movement, which respected and worked with the Aboriginal perception of the outback.

But her early novels were not always well received, and the manuscript of one ended up being flung into the Thames. It was read by Paul Scott, of Raj quartet fame, who said Cato had a good writer's eye - but still turned it down. "I had rejection, rejection, rejection," Cato recalled. "If you can't take rejection, you'll never be a writer." Seven years later, another collection, The Dancing Bough (1957), brought her wider acclaim before the appearance of All The Rivers Run.

Brown Sugar (1974), a novel about Queensland and the trade in indentured workers from the south Pacific, was another success. Cato also wrote three books about Tasmania, one about the last Aboriginal woman on the island, Queen Truganini (1976), and A Distant Island (1988), based on the life of botanist Ronald Gunn. The Heart Of The Continent, about two generations of outback and wartime nurses, followed in 1989. Cato was honoured with a doctorate of letters by the University of Queensland in 1990.

She became something of a local icon in the popular seaside resort of Noosa, where a park and a restaurant are named after her. She was a founding member of the local euthanasia society and received awards for her conservation work. In later life, she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and mini strokes, which never diminished her lust for life. Her daughter and two sons survive her.