Thursday, February 15, 2007

Review: Girl Sleuth, Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

I don't know that I read every single last Nancy Drew published in my day -- but I know I tried to! The mystery books were available at the Acme store, so family grocery night was an opportune time to spend allowance money on a new Nancy Drew.

Nancy lived a thrilling life and I was one of those girls who wanted what Nancy had: freedom, confidence, intelligence, multiple talents and skills, loyal friends, a nifty blue roadster and a supportive yet never controlling boyfriend.

Nancy's mom died long ago and was out of the picture. Her dad, an attorney, provides her with an endless source of mysteries and with a house-keeper who could whip up a great picnic basket for Nancy and her friends Bess and George. Bess and George are on opposite ends of the femininity index, with Nancy firmly placed in the middle, a self-contained balance of yin and yang qualities.

I found myself reflecting upon Nancy and her influences on my life when I picked up a fairly recent (2005) biography of the women who wrote the Nancy Drew series, developing an idea originated by Edward Stratemeyer, of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, producers of numerous series books for boys and girls. His initial notes state:
"These suggestions are for a new series for girls verging on novels. 224 pages, to retail at fifty cents. I have called this line the "Stella Strong Stories," but they might also be called "Diana Drew Stories," "Diana Dare Stories," "Nan Nelson Stories," "Nan Drew Stories" or "Helen Hale Stories" . . .

Stella Strong, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a District Attorney of many years standing. He is a widower and often talks over his affairs with Stella and the girl was present during many interviews her father had with noted detectives and at the solving of many intricate mysteries. Then, quite unexpectedly, Stella plunged into some mysteries of her own and found herself wound up in a series of exciting situations. An up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy."
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak (a poet and critic published in The New Yorker, The Nation and more -- interview with the writer here) gives us the two intertwining stories behind the pen-name Carolyn Keene. From the east coast: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams a Wellesley graduate, inherited her father's syndicate when he died at an early age. The syndicate made its money from a stable of ghost writers who worked at piece rates writing to formulas created by Edward Stratemeyer. The Nancy Drew Series was only in its infancy at the time of Stratemeyer's death.

Meanwhile in the Midwest, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was busily establishing herself as a writer in Iowa. A graduate of Iowa State University, Mildred was athletic with an independent streak and a love for writing and language expressed at an early age. Longing for her own copy of Peter Rabbit, at age five she hand-copied the story so she could hold it in her hands.

Rehak compares and contrasts the backgrounds of these two fascinating women within the context of the character of Nancy Drew -- what is her appeal and how did these two women further her development? I find it interesting that although both Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Maude Wirt Benson married and raised children of their own, Nancy's own romantic life always steered clear from anything involving commitment, let alone any kissing or other mushy stuff. Nancy Drew's appeal has always been that of the independent female, able to take action without paternal or any other male interference.

Rehak's Girl Sleuth is a gripping tale that not only gives us the inside information on how Nancy's traits and story points were developed over the decades, but also gives us a panoramic view of expanding vistas for young girls growing up in the 20th century. Writing was one career in which women could find both a vehicle for self expression and a means of earning some money. Mildred's writing became her family's sole support after her husband suffered a series of strokes:
"I had to write all the time....I had no choice on writing, it wasn't a leisurely thing at all. It was a hard deadline and I was usually three for four books behind on orders. I put my typewriter up beside my husband's bed and I'd take care of him at night and typewrite right by the bedside...I just wrote as long as I could write each day and night."
Toiling for fees of between $100 - $250 per book, Mildred never shared in any royalties from her work, although upon occasion, a syndicate bonus check might boost her spirits.

One of Mildred's last books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate was The Mystery of the Tolling Bell. By good fortune, I happened upon a copy of this book in an antique stall in Berlin, OH. Having just finished Girl Sleuth, I wanted to revisit the experience of reading a Nancy Drew story. Published in 1946, it features a mysterious cave, an apparent ghostly appearance, secret passages and a gypsy woman selling fake cosmetics. As I galloped through the story (just like in younger days), I thrilled again to Nancy's ability to develop clues and leap into action. Her independence is intoxicating, the mystery is intriguing, and she never backs away from facing danger.

In the introduction to Girl Sleuth, Rehak identifies this book as one of her particular favorites, and includes the final lines of the story as they underscore Nancy's ability to solve mysteries without interference from her boyfriend Ned Nickerson:
"Mysteries!" he exclaimed, turning out the lantern. Haven't you had enough of them?"
Nancy was sure she never would have. Already the girl was longing for another, and it was to come in the form of "The Clue in the Old Album."
"Anyway, " said Ned, "there's one mystery I know never will be solved."
"What is it, Ned?"
"Why you always change the subject when I try to talk to you about something that isn't a bit mysterious!"
Nancy merely smiled sweetly, and walked out into the sunshine.
So both thumbs up for Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth. I picked it up in paperback at Borders awhile back, in one of their buy 2 get one free deals. It should be available at your local library.

For some excellent Nancy Drew information online, visit Here I found handy information as to whether one is reading an original story or a later "revised" edition. Quick hint -- if your Nancy Drew is sporting 25 chapters, it's an original. The revisions are chopped down in page numbers and shortened to 20 chapters.


microdot said...

My wife was a Nancy Drew fan, she probably would still be if we had any books. She loves Brenda Starr. A few years ago, I found some reprints of Brenda Starr comics from the 50's complete with fashion cut outs...Dale Messick was a real proto feminist character!
I started reading a series of books by a British author named Alexander McCall Smith that are nephew sent me the first one and now I get the next and pass it on to my friends as I finish them. They are the Number One Ladies Detective Agency Series.
All set in Botswana with the Number One Lady Detective,Mma Precious Ramotswe. I have been finding very cheap on Amazon.
I'm not at all sure I am jealous of the snow...I had my fill of it back in Ohio and Michigan. I worked as a drawbridge operator on the Maumee River for 3 years and was once stranded at work for 3 days when a blizzard hit and no one could make it in to relieve me. The only time in my life that I was grateful there was a McDonalds that managed to open with iin walking distance.
In 1994 there was great blizzard that hit NYC with 28 inches of snow and the city shut down. It was magic. To walk down the middle of 14th Street and see only groups of happy people, no cars or buses.
Today it was 74 degrees here with bright sunshine. It will be nice tomorrow, but not quite as warm. We've had a lot of rain here but no freezing temperatures for almost 18 days and none in the 10 day prevision. On Wednesday, though, we had a huge unexpected wind storm that was very bad on the coast and here, I lost a door from my barn!
I was rolling hay bales down the ramp for my neighbors horses when the wind hit...I hope I can get it back on, it's huge and heavy, we have to get it up the ramp, then try to jack it into place.....
Keep warm!

Village Green said...

Comics and serial books -- never-ending delights! The little pleasures of having something to look forward to.

Sorry to hear about your barn door. We've got huge piles of snow everywhere now. I haven't seen anything like this since growing up here in the 50s and 60s. Saying that I start to feel like an old timer!

What a curious job -- drawbridge operator! The strangest job I ever had was working as a money counter in a bank vault. I was temping in San Fran in the early 80s. We used to get in these tin cans from Hong Kong -- packed with bundles of $100 bills.

We had to work in pairs inside a glas walled vault, each having one key to a two lock door. We ran the bills through a counting machine. It would stop and flash a yellow light if any of the bills were counterfeit. The air was heavy with money dust and I would go home and blow out green ink dust from my nose into a tissue.