I was never as obsessed with Nancy Drew as some girls were, especially I think because I was growing up in the 80s and 90s when her popularity was staI was never as obsessed with Nancy Drew as some girls were, especially I think because I was growing up in the 80s and 90s when her popularity was starting to wane a little. I remember browsing the long row of yellow spines in the children's section at the library, though, and discovering the more "grown-up" Nancy Drew Case Files series a few years later on my junior high library's shelves. Whether or not you have fond memories of reading Nancy Drew yourself, there's no doubt that just about every American girl (and a lot of boys) from several generations knows OF her at the very least.
I remember the slight feeling of disillusionment I felt when I learned that Carolyn Keane was a pseudonym under which several people wrote. (I felt almost as betrayed as when I discovered that Ann M. Martin didn't write all the Babysitters Club books herself!) In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak traces the lives of the two women who had the most influence on who Nancy came to be. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was the daughter of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's founder. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was one of the country's first book packagers (think Alloy Entertainment and its many book and TV series), creating well-known series and characters like the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, then passing off the writing of the books themselves to ghostwriters, who worked according to detailed plot outlines. Harriet and her sister Edna took over the Syndicate after their father died in 1930 and shepherded Nancy's early years while another writer, Mildred Wirt Benson, wrote most of the first 30 books in the series.
I came away from this book with admiration for Harriet and absolute awe for Mildred. They both worked hard to carve a place for themselves in a literary world still heavily dominated by men and men's taste, while still being very much women of their time. I got the feeling that Rehak liked Mildred a lot more than Harriet, and frankly, I did too. Harriet comes off as strong-willed, determined, intelligent, and successful, but also very much as a slightly vainglorious daughter of the upper class who fell prey to many of the prejudices common to that class and era. She went to one of the Seven Sisters colleges in a time when most women didn't even think of higher education, worked in the women's suffrage movement, took over her father's company and built it into a juggernaut that ran successfully for over 50 years, and fought hard to maintain the rights to a character she felt belonged to her alone. But she also wanted to use the Nancy Drew stories to push a very upper-class set of values, and failed to understand the seriousness of the racist and sometimes sexist content that led to a major overhaul of most of the early books in the series in the 1950s (the yellow spine hardcovers that most girls remember reading are these revised versions).
Mildred just seems like a badass. She was an accomplished swimmer and diver and excelled in college athletics, became one of the first women to graduate from the University of Iowa's graduate school of journalism, insisted on working after her marriage when middle-class women were expected to quit immediately, took flying lessons in her 50s, traveled the globe visiting archaeological digs well into her seventies, and was still writing a newspaper column up until her death at 97. Like I said, a badass. She sometimes found it hard to keep quiet about her role as "Carolyn Keane", especially in later years when it felt to her like Harriet was trying to claim all the credit. I imagine Mildred as being an incredibly forceful personality that you admired and respected even while she sometimes drove you crazy.
To wrap things up, I found Rehak's account of Nancy Drew's creators and their lives and times fascinating and hard to put down. I only have a few quibbles. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the books themselves, and maybe more from the point of view of girls who grew up with Nancy. I know the book is meant to be a biography focused on the two women, but if you didn't know about Nancy Drew you'd probably wonder why in the world such a big fuss was being taken over the authors of a children's mystery series. In later chapters she does go a bit more into the cultural impact the books had, but I would have liked more for the earlier stories, as well. I think maybe what I'm really wanting is a critical review of the Nancy Drew books, so maybe I'm looking in the wrong place for this and shouldn't fault Rehak. One other issue for me: the end notes are not very clearly labeled and organized, which sometimes makes it hard to track down her sources. Otherwise, I found this to be a fun read, worthwhile to anyone who's loved Nancy or is interested in the history of books for children....more
This was really fun, although not quite what I was expecting. The fact that the author is an Iranian Jewish refugee who grew up in London means she'sThis was really fun, although not quite what I was expecting. The fact that the author is an Iranian Jewish refugee who grew up in London means she's often got a little bit different take on a lot of the classics than I did. Sometimes, though, it feels like she tries a little too hard to shoehorn "lessons" she learned from each heroine into what would otherwise be a fascinating memoir of a reading life. If nothing else this book is a great reminder to reread old favorites or add new books to my to-read list....more