Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak, caught my eye at the library a few weeks ago. I read it in two segments separated by a couple weeks, but each time once I got into it I found it quite interesting. Rehak tells us the story of Edward Stratemeyer, the man who invented Nancy Drew but died soon afterwards, Mildred Wirt Benson, the primary ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew books for almost 25 years, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Edward’s daughter, who took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate when he died and ghostwrote many of the later Nancy Drews. I enjoyed learning the history of children’s “series” novels, in which Edward Stratemeyer had a large role (he is responsible for, among others, The Bobbsey Twins, The Rover Boys, The Hardy Boys, and of course Nancy Drew). These series novels originating in the earlier part of the 20th century were typically very formulaic, unrealistic, ghostwritten, and quite popular. I also found it fascinating to read about the lives of the two women primarily responsible for Nancy Drew. Although neither of them called themselves feminists, they both were in their own way. They both went to college and had careers. Harriet essentially became a CEO when she took over her father’s company after his death, and Mildred was a working woman her entire life, working full-time as a journalist in addition to ghostwriting many books and authoring her own children’s books.
One of the more interesting tidbits I learned is that the first 30 Nancy Drews underwent significant revisions in the late 1950s. They resolved racist scenes by removing all references to minorities, changed Nancy’s age from 16 to 18, and made the books even more action-packed. These revised ones are the main ones published and sold now, and the versions that I read as a child. I was aware that the books had likely been updated at some point since they typically refer to 1950s or later styles as opposed to 1930s styles (although of course reading them in the 1980s and 1990s they seemed dated to me anyway), but I did not realize how significant the revisions were. Rehak says of the revised books, “The results were snappy, but they were also devoid of much of the charm that had made the stories so successful,” which makes me highly curious to read one of the originals.
Reading Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her made me want to reread an actual Nancy Drew, so I got the very first one, The Secret of the Old Clock (1950s revised version), from the library. I found myself drawn into the story even though I really cannot say exactly what makes it captivating. The writing is pretty bad and the events are highly unrealistic. Nancy Drew herself is about as close to perfection as they get. The mundane details of everyday life are rarely mentioned; the majority of the time is spent describing one action scene after another. And yet, I still found myself curious to see how Nancy was going to solve the mystery and eager to find out what would happen next. Somehow, Nancy’s perfect world where she can handle anything that comes her way is appealing. I can definitely see why I enjoyed the books as a child, but I do not think they hold up as well for adult rereading as my favorite children’s detective series, Trixie Belden.
I’d love to hear what you think of Nancy Drew – did you read them as a child, and/or have you read/reread them as an adult? What do you think makes her so timelessly popular?