Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew by Anne C. Perry
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
I've reread a number of beloved books from my childhood for this project, but there's one I won't touch. And, by "one," I mean "a ten billion volume strong series" - the Nancy Drew mysteries. I tried rereading one when I was about 20, and I couldn't stand it. So I'm just going to leave the Nancy Drew books where they belong: my memory.
First, a little personal history. I didn't read before I was seven. My parents, both great readers, were concerned there was something wrong with me, but there just didn't seem to be anything to do about it. I just... wasn't interested. In a last-ditch effort to get me reading, my mom gave me a box of books she'd bought at a garage sale - twelve of the 1930s Nancy Drews, and the complete Narnia series. We spent the day after Christmas that year tortuously working through The Hidden Staircase, the 1930 edition of the second ever Nancy Drew. Mom would read a page aloud, then make me read a page. I'll never forget how slow reading aloud was, how frustrated I was that it took forever to find out what happened next.
I took the rest of the box to my room that evening and haven't stopped reading (silently) since.
As I became a slightly more sophisticated reader I developed a preference for particular Nancy Drews, although I'd read any of them - I liked the original books, the Nancy Drews written between 1930 and 1959. I understood vaguely that all the originals had been rewritten in the 1960s, and that they and the books produced after the 1959 cut-off date weren't as good as the earlier ones, but I couldn't have articulated why. I still read them - hell, I'd read anything I could get my hands on. But, (hello, future geek), I preferred the earliest books, and made a point of searching them out.
The Nancy Drew mysteries, as it turns out, were rewritten to streamline the plots and remove the racism of the originals. But they also toned down Nancy's character; she was, for example, much more likely to be rescued than be the one doing the rescuing in the later books. (And the less said about the "gritty" 1980s reboot, The Nancy Drew Files, the better - I never managed to finish a single one.) My relationship with that yellow-spined 1960s Nancy Drew was very different from my relationship with awesome 1930s Nancy Drew; I still sucked up the books, of course, but with the understanding that I'd be vaguely disappointed by them, that I'd prefer the earlier edition if I could find it.
So why Nancy Drew?
Because Nancy is the hero of her books. She isn't a heroine, that slap of an epithet that said "sort of like a hero, but a girl" to me. She wasn't the protagonist, or the love-interest, or any of a thousand other mealy-mouthed qualifiers invented to blunt the edges of her agency. Nancy Drew was the unambiguous chooser of her own adventures. She wasn't just kind and generous; Nancy Drew was full-on smart and capable: the titian-haired, Roadster-driving, outspoken, balls-to-the-wall awesome maker of her own destiny. She discovered buried treasure, explored secret tunnels, unmasked thieves and cheats, uncovered plots, donned disguises, rescued her friends, rescued her boyfriend, rescued her father. She could out-ride, out-shoot, out-maneuver, out-think and out-speak anyone while helping out little old ladies and poverty-stricken children.
And, best of all, Nancy Drew was never boring. All those other children's books people gave me ("you'll like this; there's a girl in it who has adventures!") were so dull in comparison - I couldn't stand Anne Shirley, that overwritten little goober, or earnestly-beloved-by-sensitive-girls-everywhere Jo March from Little Women, who felt so very saccharine and limited compared to outspoken Nancy. (The only comparison, in fact, was Laura Ingalls from the Little House series, and Laura stopped being interesting the moment she hit puberty.)
Nancy was, in short, everything I saw in myself. She wasn't aspirational for me. Nancy Drew was me - I, who was always the hero of my own stories.
And so, as I said at the beginning of this essay, I won't reread the Nancy Drew mysteries. I want to leave Nancy - my first hero, my first fictional self - on the throne I built for her when I was seven years old. I'll still bring my questions and my qualifications to her, of course; that's always been part of our relationship. But, for the most part, I'm happy to let her sit where she is - to leave her agency eternally unblunted.