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Obituaries Dame Mary Durack

Probably no Australian writer has done more to shape modern images of the outback Australian past than Mary Durack.

In the 1880s the East Kimberley district of north-western Australia was occupied by overlanding cattlemen from Queensland and New South Wales who in marathon droving journeys of more than 2,000 miles brought their cattle on the hoof to begin a tropical pastoral industry. The extended Durack family led this movement.

By the 1920s when Mary was a child growing up in Perth the family firm controlled over 7 million acres and her father was the local member of parliament. The pioneering generation of overlanders was dying off. Mary early developed a lively interest in their reminiscences, and her parents encouraged her literary talent and the artistic skills of her younger sister Elizabeth.

Beef prices slumped ruinously, and in the mid-1930s, barely 20 years old, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves running a 750,000-acre cattle station. For both sisters this was an intensely formative experience. They grew close to the women and children inthe Aboriginal community at a time when such empathy was rare. Two children's books reflected this experience, but marriage in 1938 and the demands of a young family limited Mary Durack's literary output for some years.

When the family properties were sold in 1950 Mary Durack, already committed to writing the family history, became custodian of an impressive archive. In 1955 she published a novel, Keep Him My Country, in which she explored the relationship of an Aboriginal woman and a white pastoralist with an honesty unusual at that time. She also served twice as president of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Kings in Grass Castles appeared in 1959. Covering the life and times of her grandfather Patrick Durack, organiser of the 1880s overlanders, the book drew on her extensive command of family oral tradition as well as more conventional scholarly sources, and was an immediate success. It appeared a year after Russell Ward's Australian Legend, an influential statement of the Australian bush tradition as largely reflecting the values and style of nomadic male pastoral workers. Kings in Grass Castles reminded its readers that women and families were essential to the pioneering process. It also challenged stereotypes of Aboriginal-white relations by showing that initial conflict could be followed by collaboration and a degree of mutual respect.

Her respect for Aboriginal culture carried over into the present. She was unsparing in her promotion of Aboriginal creative artists and writers. Among those she encouraged was the writer Colin Johnson (now Mudrooroo Narrogin), today probably Australia's leading Aboriginal novelist. Her generosity was unstinting, and her home at Nedlands was open to a wide range of bush characters, Aboriginal and white, creative artists and promoters of good causes. Such demands often took too much of her writing time, but her output continued.

During the 1960s she worked on The Rock and the Sand (1969), an account of the Catholic missions in the Kimberley district. Drawing on ageing memories and written sources at risk from the climate and white ants, she producedprobably her finest piece of historical research; but it was too objective and too firmly grounded in the district's social history to please hagiographers and never won due recognition.

Mary Durack and her husband, Horrie Miller, managing partner of the local airline, spent several months of each year in Broome, an old pearling port of great ethnic diversity. Aware that Asian/Aboriginal children found it hard to respond to the traditional literature of school curricula, she wrote Ship of Dreams, a play based on local folklore. It enjoyed a success well beyond its original Broome audience, and was one of the first attempts to come to terms with Australia's increasing multiculturalism.

But inevitably she was drawn back to family history, and Sons in the Saddle, a sequel to Kings in Grass Castles, appeared in 1983. Without the mythic potential of the overlanding years, her study of the second generation of Duracks showed insight into the predicament of inheritors with neither the zest of their pioneering parents nor the easy acceptance of the environment which would come to their children. A significant sub-theme was the increasing impact of pastoral use on the Kimberley environment; Mary's brother Kim Durack was a notable reformer in tropical pastoral and agricultural practice, and some of his perceptions found their way into her work.

The trilogy was never completed. Perhaps it was difficult to approach the present, with its inevitable component of autobiography. But the demands on Durack's time were many. She was director, patron,and an energetic promoter of the Stockman's Hall of Fame, a memorial and museum at Longreach in central Queensland, eventually opened as a 1988 Bicentenary project. She served several years on the Literature Board of the Australia Council. The main demands on her time were, as ever, informal: researchers se eking background information,lonely old Kimberley hands dropping in for a yarn. And by now she was matriarch of an extensive clan.

Perhaps this kindness of heart came at a cost. A generous spirit sometimes finds it hard to make the historian's sharpest judgements. But in the increasingly complex and multicultural milieu of modern Australia she provided an authentic bridge to an older pastoral past. Andshe presented Australian readers with a number of themes before they were widely fashionable: respect for Aboriginal attitudes and culture, acknowledgement of women's role in the outback. Most of her obituaries in Australia have focused on her warm and gracious personality; but her long-term importance may well be as one of those who began the process of bringing Australia's white and Aboriginal cultures into a creative coalition.

Geoffrey Bolton

Mary Durack, writer, historian: born 20 February 1913; OBE 1966, DBE 1978; AC 1989; married 1938 Horrie Miller (died 1980; two sons, two daughters, and two daughters deceased); died Nedlands, Western Australia 16 December 1994.