Thursday, January 31, 2008

5. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

The title: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
The author: Melanie Rehak
Publication: Harcourt, 2005
Got it from: La Library

It was a cold September morning, 1992. I was ten years old. My dad had picked up my grandmother from the airport where she had just returned from an overseas visit to my uncle. Everyone else was asleep and I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen to discover two presents waiting for me, fresh from Japan: books one and two of the Nancy Drew series. Thus began my foray into the world that enthralled generations of girls (my grandmother included). I never read the whole series, as did some of my friends, who owned all 50+ of the originals and reread them half a dozen times. Truthfully, I never found Nancy Drew sexy enough to keep up my interest - I mean, Judy Blume talked about periods. But I have a certain fondness for the titian-haired detective and certainly more so now that I've read this book.

Girl Sleuth is more about the two women who essentially created the Nancy we know and love than Nancy herself. It's also about the 20th century history that surrounds Nancy, including the women's rights movements of the early century and later the 1960's, which I find fascinating. (I did my undergraduate thesis on a comparison of the suffrage movements in Canada, the US and Britain so this was right up my alley). Not everyone may be interested in early twentieth century women's history, though, so I could see how this book might bog people down in parts. What I found most interesting was how Nancy - independent and uninterested in domesticity and marriage - was adopted by feminists as their icon.

Which of the two women (Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson) was the "real" Carolyn Keene? As the book clearly notes, it's complicated. Both could lay equal claim. Harriet's father, a pioneer in children's publishing, actually first came up with the idea for Nancy, the Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins in the early 20th century. He hired Mildred, a talented young writer of about 25 to pen the first few Nancy Drews based on a few brief outlines. He died soon after, leaving his company in the hands of his young daughter Harriet, who took on the job of CEO at a time when women simply didn't work outside the home. I do love me a good story about women who triumph in business. (Go read Butterfly by Kathryn Harvey. Seriously. Now). To make a long story short, Mildred wrote the first few dozen books in the series under Harriet's strict and watchful eye, until Harriet decided to take complete control of the series and write them herself. Harriet died in 1982 at the age of 90. Mildred only died in 2002, when she was still working as a journalist at the incredible age of 96.

I could go on a lot more, but to sum up: history of early 20th century children's publishing industry + 2 incredibly take-charge women + women's suffrage movement + one feminist girl detective who don't take crap from no one = one awesome read. A-


Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm glad you reviewed this. I've been really curious about it. I own only a few but I've read most of them. :) Donna

KJH said...

It breezes along nicely. I'd highly recommend it.

Also - yay! Thank you for my first comment.