On April 28, 1930, roughly four generations ago, the first three Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were published. The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase and The Bungalow Mystery were all outlined and edited by publisher Edward Stratemeyer and written by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, which would be used by many, many authors following Benson.
I don’t remember exactly where or when I picked up my first Nancy Drew book, if it was something I came across at a school book fair, a suggestion made by my parents or if I was drawn to the yellow hardback spines by chance. Either way, when I was 9-years-old, I read as many of them as I could. Alongside the occasional Lemony Snicket or Harry Potter book, I read the series almost exclusively — so much so that an observant boy in my class thought to buy a vintage Nancy Drew for me as a Valentine’s gift. I filled reading logs in class with the name Carolyn Keene. I brought the books along with me everywhere. I still remember reading The Secret of the Old Clock for the first time in bed, in the school cafeteria, in my elementary school auditorium, everywhere, thinking that someday I would grow up to be just like Nancy Drew.
This didn’t mean that I started begging my parents for a cute blue convertible or even attempting to solve mysteries. The best thing about reading Nancy Drew was living vicariously through her adventures. Nancy did it all and had it all. She had infinite hobbies and talents, a hot-shot college boyfriend, a convertible, cool friends, determination and what seemed like total self-sufficiency.
In the prime of my Nancy Drew reading phase, from 4th to 5th grade, I got straight As. I spent my time ice skating in the mornings and doing ballet once a week. During school recess, I started a “Writer’s Club” and worked as an official kindergarten monitor and mediator (the closest I ever got to solving crimes). During my time off, I took a course in babysitter’s training at the American Red Cross and learned how to perform CPR. I even dressed as Nancy Drew for Halloween, wearing my mom’s old trench coat. Nobody got the costume, which wasn’t very well-executed, but that didn’t matter. It was cool just to be Nancy.
These days, Nancy Drew is known for her influence on women. In 2007, Diane Sawyer was quoted saying: "I discovered that all around me, among my friends, are Nancy Drew fans. … Back in the '50s, back in the '60s, in the world of Donna Reed and then Barbie dolls, there was an intrepid young woman who inspired women like this."
The series demanded a sort of perfectionism. I didn’t think much about Nancy’s contradictions, how believable she was or wasn’t as a character. The side of Nancy that inspired a new generation of capable, confident, smart, can-do women came juxtaposed to the ultra-feminine Nancy: the skinny, pretty, popular girl, who was able to throw on a pastel-colored dress at a moment's notice. Nancy’s versatility is unbelievable, troubling even, but she makes up for it. She’s always there to save the day for the men in her life, for her friends, for the local mailman, everyone and anyone. It’s hard not to admire her perfection, her calm and collected disposure in the most anxious of situations: catching thieves, sneaking alongside a creepy cult called “The Black Snake Colony,” solving mysteries in haunted houses. As a heroine, her troubles come from the situations around her, from villians. It’s like any superhero story — who wouldn’t want to believe that someone like Nancy could actually exist?
In a way, Nancy Drew is branding at its finest. To children, the author is always the same, the heroine is already loved unconditionally. Three, four generations later, Nancy has endured. When I was nine, it didn’t matter if the book portrayed 1980s Nancy or 1960s Nancy, if it took the form of a book or a PC game (terrified beyond belief, I played Message in a Haunted Mansion and Secrets Can Kill). I always argued for Nancy Drew over the Hardy Boys, even though, as an adult, I would find out that the Nancy Drew series was created to piggyback the success of the Hardy Boys. Publisher Edward Stratemeyer felt girls needed a detective to look up to and hired Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson to ghostwrite the series — 23 of the original 30 Nancy Drew series to be exact — and the series continued to be outlined by Stratemeyer and his daughters Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer Squier until 1979. Generation after generation were given their own take on Nancy Drew, who stayed young forever on the page.
I stopped reading the series sometime early in middle school. Many years later, after I graduated from college, I finally gave away my collection of Nancy Drew books. I was in love with the nostalgia, but I was sure that I wouldn’t be reading them again. Recently, I ended up buying two books from the series again, just to have some idea of what they were like. I flipped through The Mystery at Lilac Inn and Nancy’s Mysterious Letters and couldn’t help thinking how glamorous they were; they read with a strangely similar flavor to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. There were exclamation points in places that were only suitable for a child-reader, but that was part of the charm. Nancy was spunky, and so were her friends, and through all the mystery and uncertainty there was an unbelievable amount of warmth.
I don’t know what happened to the copies of Nancy Drew I gave away. They may have went to the twins I used to babysit across the street or to the elementary school nearby or even to someone who was passing by on the sidewalk and spotted a box labeled “FREE BOOKS! Please take and enjoy.” I don’t remember what I did with them, but I trust they’ve made it into the hands of another girl or boy who might enjoy them just the same, who can look up to Nancy.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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