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Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

by Melanie Rehak

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Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
"It's some kind of weird cult!" Nancy whispered.

Well, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but we Nancy Drew fans are a loyal lot. This caption from the frontispiece illustration in The Thirteenth Pearl, Nancy's fifty-sixth mystery, does not, of course, refer to her readers - rather, to a group of party guests who don white robes and march around the room. But in reading Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, I found myself feeling like a young fan again, reconnecting with the intrepid Nancy and her detective adventures.

For me the entry to the world of mysteries was a Nancy Drew story. In my case, it was Mystery of the Glowing Eye. I was about seven years old; my mother ordered it from the back of a cereal box. No matter that it was story number fifty-one and I'd have a lot of catching up to do by reading all of the earlier books. I was hooked. As were my mother, my aunts, and coworkers when they read their first Nancys. Rehak finds this in her research as well, quickly moving beyond the basic fact of Nancy's popularity in books and other products through the years. "All of this attests to the enduring presence of Nancy Drew," she writes, "but none of it answers the question of why she has endured."
She dispenses with the "why" in short order, too, noting the character's independence, strength, intelligence, and grit and the tendency for the stories to remain relatively untouched by real-world events. Rehak is more interested in how the experiences of the women who wrote the books played into Nancy's development. Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the primary authors behind the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, certainly had their differences. Benson was an Iowa native, a champion athlete, and the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, who went on to write a number of children's series and was a hardworking newswoman well into her 90s. Adams grew up in elite circles on the East Coast, graduated from Wellesley, was a wife and the mother of four children, and initially took over (along with her sister) her father's business only because she couldn't find anyone to buy it. Equally independent, however, these career women were ahead of their time. When writing about Nancy, Rehak says, "Both Harriet and Mildred had envisioned her as a girl who could do what she wanted in a world that was largely the province of men, just as each of them had done."
Many will already know that Keene was not a real person; that Edward Stratemeyer created the Nancy Drew persona for one of his Stratemeyer Syndicate series; and that Benson and Adams wrote the majority of the fifty-six stories published by Grosset & Dunlap. Some may also know (although I admit I did not) that after World War II, the early stories - mostly by Benson, first published in the 1930s - were revised by Adams to remove guns and racial stereotypes, streamline the plots, and make Nancy just a little more genteel, in addition to raising her age from sixteen to eighteen and replacing her roadster with a convertible. What Rehak adds is an in-depth look at the lives of Stratemeyer, Adams, and Benson, showing how their experiences contributed to the series' engaging "Drewness." She's also made a thorough and careful effort to sort out the details of authorship and editing, the power struggles between Adams and Benson (and between Adams and her sister, Edna Squier), and the subtle, never-explicit relationship of Nancy's world to current events of the time.
Piecing together facts, letters, and other materials to write interpretive biographies, she first traces Stratemeyer's rise as a mogul of juvenile fiction series and, with it, a partial history of juvenile fiction publishing in general. His Syndicate alone produced series such as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, the Motor Boys, and the Dana Girls. The three chapters that focus on the pre-Nancy lives and times of Stratemeyer, Adams, and Benson are valuable and well crafted but move at a slower pace, partly due to the lack of direct connections made to the Drew books. This may be a side effect of the chronological structure, and the rest of book does a wonderful job with such connections. Once the story of the series gets rolling, it spurs you on much in the way of each Nancy Drew mystery. You want to find out what happens.
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