Nancy Fotheringham Cato AM was an Australian writer who published more than twenty historical novels, biographies and volumes of poetry. Cato is also known for her work campaigning on environmental and conservation issues.
Cato was born in Glen Osmond in South Australia, and was a fifth-generation Australian. She studied English Literature and Italian at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1939, then completing a two-year course at the South Australian School of Arts. She was a cadet journalist on The News from 1935 to 1941, and as an art critic from 1957 to 1958.
With Roland Robinson and Kevin Collopy, in 1948 Cato was one of the founding members of the Lyre-Bird Writers, an independent and cooperative group that formed to publish verse by Australian writers. As a member of the Jindyworobak Movement, Cato edited the 1950 Jindyworobak Anthology, one of a series of anthologies produced to promote indigenous Australian ideas and customs, particularly in poetry. She was actively involved in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Australian Society of Authors during the 1950s and 1960s.
Cato's books include: Green Grows The Vine, Brown Sugar and All The Rivers Run, which was made into a TV mini-series. Her book Mister Maloga told the story of Daniel Matthews and his Maloga Mission to Aboriginal people on the Murray River in Victoria.
Cato became a local icon in Noosa, Queensland area and has a park and restaurant named after her. The Noosa Parks Association made her a life member and an honorary park ranger for her work in conservation. In 1984, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to literature and the environment, and she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Queensland in 1991. In 2006 a new suburb of Franklin was proposed for Canberra with the streets named after Australian women writers. The suburb is to include Nancy Cato Street.
Cato married Eldred Norman, and travelled extensively overseas with him. They had one daughter and two sons. Dr Nancy Cato Norman died at Noosa Heads on 3 July 2000. Cato's cousin was also named Nancy Cato and was host of children's TV show the Magic Circle Club in the mid 1960s.
Her first published novel 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.
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.