Detectives Week Review: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
Harcourt, 2005 (Currently Available)

Genre: Nonfiction

Face Value: Perfectly effective. This cover, for me, strikes the ideal balance of original Nancy Drew nostalgia and serious-looking nonfiction aesthetics. This is a book that I found on a shelf, not knowing anything about it, and bought partially because I was interested but largely because I found it so aesthetically appealing.

Interestingly though, as much as I like it, I think that the cover of this book, as well as the content led to some mishelving at my local bookseller. I am pretty confident that this book is intended for adult readers, with older YA appeal. It’s 350 pages with tiny print, and photos only in the middle section. And yet it was placed in with the middle grade collection. I’d be curious to hear from librarians as to where they place it and who they send it out to.

Does it Break the Slate? Without. A. Doubt. Brianna’s already talked about Nancy Drew and her Slatebreaking qualities, but it’s exciting to see the inherent feminism behind her creation. Sure, the two women primarily responsible for creating Nancy had different visions for her, but both of them envisioned her as the kind of young woman who they wanted to be – one who took the world into her own hands and solved her own problems and those surrounding her.

Who would we give it to? This is an impeccably researched, well-told nonfiction narrative. So I would give it to pretty much any adult or teenager who liked Nancy Drew as a younger girl. If you already have an interest in the subject matter, you’re going to enjoy reading Rehak’s account of Mildred Augustine Wirt and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and how they created Nancy and her world.

Review: Nancy Drew is an icon. For decades, feminists have been citing her as one of their childhood inspirations, including all three of our current female supreme court justices. When I queried my facebook friends about the impact Nancy Drew had on them, I received the following responses (among others):

“I LOVED Nancy Drew books from the moment I could read a chapter book on my own. Every time we had library at school, I’d head straight for Nancy Drew. I loved how familiar each story was (the formulaic parts), I loved her and her friend George (I loved that she had a boy’s name!), and I wanted to grow up to be a detective like her. I loved her almost as completely as I loved the March sisters.”

“Nancy and her friends were a little too antiseptic-clean for me in the books I read. I got frustrated that one of their defining characteristics was being chubby, since I was the chubby one among my friends when I was a young reader. But, I loved that they traveled so much! Their adventures in traveling hooked me more than any mystery did–I felt like I learned a lot about different parts of the world by reading their books.”

“I read her and still have a love for convertibles.”

“Totally. My best friend and I regularly played Nancy Drew. Nancy and Nancy, if you will. I remember many a summer day spent solving cases while running between pews in the sanctuary at the church where my mom worked.”

“Definitely read them, and it led to a lifetime love of mystery novels (good and bad).”

It’s worth noting that only women responded, but those that did varied in age across several decades. Even if she got a little too predictable for you, her icon status is undeniable. I loved Nancy Drew too. And so, when I happened upon this book, I was surprised by how little I actually knew about her, and about how the series came to exist. I was also pleased by how much feminism seemed to have an impact on her development, in the grand scheme of things.

Though Nancy Drew was initially conceived of by a man, Edward Stratemeyer, it was two different women that really brought her to life, Mildred Augustine Wirt and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. Edward was the creator of the Stratemyer Syndicate, which also created popular children’s books like The Hardy Boys, and The Bobbsey Twins. Essentially the syndicate would create a concept for a series, make up a fake author’s name and send short “pitches” for the different books to a crop of ghostwriters, who would send them back. That way the syndicate had a tremendous amount of control over, not only the content they published, but the brand. If an author moved on to other things (or started to ask for too much money, in some cases) another writer could take over without any loss of allure or audience.

When Edward came up with the concept for Nancy Drew (who was originally going to be named Stella, which would have obviously been awful), he gave the first pitches to a young writer named Mildred Augustine . She demonstrated a remarkable skill for both the style of writing and for capturing Nancy’s voice. She wrote many of the early Nancy Drews. When Edward died, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the syndicate. She wrote many of Nancy’s later stories after Mildred stopped working with the company. Rehak gives us a terrific sense of the way these two women shaped Nancy’s character and her world – and the way Nancy shaped each of their lives and careers. Both Mildred and Harriet are without a doubt real life Slatebreakers, constantly shattering the expectations other people might have for them.

We also hear quite a bit about Nancy, and the way her gender was perceived and constructed throughout the books. Interestingly, we hear some talk of a debate that is still going on today, the idea that “Girls are unashamed readers of boys’ books, while boys are notoriously loathe to be seen with anything as effeminate as a book whose hero is a heroine.” Obviously this type of reasoning drives me nuts, and it’s satisfying to see Nancy Drew “thumbing her nose at publishing trends” by becoming a bestseller and household name. Nancy further refutes gender stereotypes throughout her books, being, as Rehak describes, “free from insecurities about her femininity and her single status, she has all the time in the world for adventure, ” and “the only one…with the maturity to tackle life’s little surprises, no matter what form they take.” Even with the frequent presence of Ned Nickerson in the background, Nancy puts herself and her adventure first. It’s also interesting to learn about the way Nancy gradually became more feminized, largely thanks to Harriet and her sister Edna’s influence, who would make tweaks to Mildred’s manuscripts “for the sake of making the book more girlish and formal.”

Though Mildred and Harriet had different priorities and visions for their beloved heroine, they shared quite a bit in common as well. As Rehak explains,

“Like the women each of us imagined Carolyn Keene to be, Harriet and Mildred were modern – ahead of their times, even. Outwardly very different they had a fierce determination in common. More than that, though, they were pioneers during periods of both great progress and great regression for women in this country, examples of persistence and strength and a reminder that even in moments in history – the turn of the century, the late 1920s, the 1950s – that we tend to think of as sorry times for women’s rights, there were always women who simply refused to be held back. Both Carolyn Keenes were tough when they needed to be, adventurous, and utterly unwilling to bend to the will of others. And while they disagreed with one another on the particulars of Nancy’s behavior, both Harriet and Mildred 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.”

Part of what makes this such an engrossing read is just that – both Mildred and Harriet demonstrated the qualities that so many of us wanted Carolyn Keene to possess. Their strength and persistence, their careers at times when women weren’t expected to have them, all reinforce the particular type of pedestal upon which we’ve placed Nancy over the years. Their story is worthy of our fascination, and worthy of the mythology they created.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore.

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1 Response to Detectives Week Review: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

  1. carolcovin says:

    Much has been made of the fact that the ghostwriters who did The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys series were not given royalties. They were, however, often journalists in their own right, paid about 2 month’s pay for their work against a detailed plot line. This book proves to be an interesting insight into how they crafted the Nancy Drew character, beloved by girls for decades for her smarts and initiative.

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