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A fifth-generation Australian, Nancy Cato began writing verse when she was still a child. She went to the first Montessori kindergarten in Australia, then was educated at Presbyterian Girls' College, winning SA's Tennyson Medal for English Literature in 1933. 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 worked on the Adelaide News as a cadet journalist 1935-41 and later as an art critic, 1957-8.
She married Eldred Norman, well-known in SA as a racing car driver, in 1941, and lived in Hope Valley. The couple had three children. Nancy says of this time (in a personal communication) that she was "'trying to write' while bearing and bringing up three children - three in three years. This was exhausting for everybody. I used to get up at four in the morning to work on my [...] novel, as the babies were awake by six." Her first story was published in 1943. She travelled in a jeep with her husband to Alice Springs (before there was a sealed road) and around the Northern Territory. In the late fifties she travelled alone to Italy, a visit she described for Rosemary Pesman's anthology Duty Free (1996). She felt that this was turning point in her writing, widening her horizons and giving a new perspective on Australia and Australians. She later also travelled in the Pacific area.
She moved to Noosa, Queensland, in 1967, and from there maintained her battle for the protection of Australia's flora and fauna from property developers. She also fought for the rights of Australia's indigenous people. She was made a life member of the Noosa Parks Association and an honorary park ranger for her contribution to the ecological and environmental protection of the area. She received the Advance Australia Award for her campaigning for the environment.
In addition to writing fiction, Cato was a poet, a freelance journalist and an art critic working for various newspapers throughout Australia. In 1950 she edited the Jindyworobak Anthology (1951); was a founding member with Roland Robinson and Kevin Collopy of the Lyre-Bird Writers (1948), formed for the purpose of getting Australian verse published, and co-edited the Southern Festival : a Collection of South Australian Writing (1960). She was actively involved in the South Australian Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1956-1964) and the Australian Society of Authors (1963-1964). She travelled widely throughout the country helping to promote the publication of Australian writing.
In 1978 she re-wrote her trilogy of historical novels (1958-62) set on the River Murray and combined them under the title All the Rivers Run. This was published simultaneously in Australia, England and the USA and was made into a highly acclaimed television series in 1982. She was involved in the SA branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1956-64) and the Australian Society of Authors (1964-96). She was awarded the AM in 1984, and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters (University of Queensland) in 1990 for her services to Australian literature. Her books have been translated into eight languages.
Cato's non-fictional writing includes the histories The Noosa Story (1979) and River's End (history of Goolwa, with Leslie McLeay, 1989). Her daughter Bronley Norman (qv) is a playwright.