Thursday, April 28

Nancy Drew, 75, Teenage Sleuth

Photographs from left: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Mystery at the Ski Jump, The Spider Sapphire Mystery, The Crooked Banister, all by Carolyn Keene via Grosset & Dunlap/Copyright Simon & Schuster. The Nancy Drew Files No. 2: Deadly Intent, by Carolyn Keene from Simon & Schuster. Graphic Novel No. 1: Demon of River Heights by Papercutz

Melanie Rehak, author of the forthcoming "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her," chronicles and analyzes the enduring popularity of the forever titian haired teenage detective.

The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories are a staple of almost every girl's (and boy's, if that matters) reading fare in grade school. I first discovered Nancy Drew one day in second grade, and had to be pulled away from the library at the end of the day. But not before I grabbed three of the books and finished them all in one night.

In high school, one of my favorite tests of independence (aka playing hooky) was riding a jeep and taking the very long way home: Get off at Legarda, cross over to Recto and then Avenida and end up in Carriedo. All the while checking the piles of dust encrusted volumes for readables to take home. The Recto Chain of Booksellers has a weird pricing index--they charge you depending on the book's thickness and popularity. Thus, Danielle Steele and Harold Robbins commanded upwards of Php40-50, and you can get J.D. Salinger for what is now the price of a stubby 200ml bottle of Coke.

I always checked out this Booksale stall in Isetann Recto because they had hardbound Nancy Drews going for twenty pesos each. I'd stop by and get me a book a week, until one day all the titles were gone. The attendant told me that a girl came by earlier in the day, squealed and bought all 20 or so remaining copies. I was heartbroken.

One of my last stops was the Goodwill in Rizal Avenue. They were perpetually holding a sale, and the books were going for five pesos each. In one of the tables were piles of books of something called River Heights. Thinking that this was another update of my favorite girl sleuth, I got the first ten books and cracked the first volume the second I secured my butt on the jeep home. That was when I discovered that River Heights wasn't the same neighborhood I thought it to be. This isn't even anywhere near C.S.I. It was Sweet Valley High crossed with The O.C. and Melrose Place. Oh yes, Nancy Drew dropped in once in a while in her old school, but only to say hi and remind everyone that R.H. High used to be her playground.

The character first introduced by Edward Stratemeyer in a post-Depression America has gone on and lived through economic crises, world wars, terrorism, and hair spray. And to prove her longevity and lasting appeal, was recently updated for the graphic novel reading and computer game playing set. Nancy Drew in an RPG? Now that's kewl.

This newest incarnation says a lot about our heroine. Since she first appeared in the 1930s, Nancy Drew has changed her car from roadster to convertible, lunched with chums George and Bess, and even got herself a boyfriend in Ned Nickerson. She's lived through bobs and flips and AquaNetted hair, and will soon be sporting huge doe eyes, but her appeal has always been this: Nancy Drew is her own tough young woman.

Rehak further points out that, "In that sense she was the most modern of role models -- a girl who knew how ''to think for herself and to think logically.'' Her mother was dead, her adoring father never got in her way and there was no challenge she could not meet, be it putting together the perfect outfit for a tea party or escaping from a kidnapper -- sometimes both in the same afternoon."

Nancy Drew's River Heights was vaguely Midwestern, and relatively free from the poverty that plagued America post-Depression. Nancy never got older. She seems to be the perfect icon that the feminists in the 1960s would uphold as figurehead: This one wasn't cut up for marriage or children.

Upping the feminist quotient even more was the way the Nancy Drew cottage industry was run: It was an all-female agenda. Stratemeyer died just 12 days after the first three Drew books were published. His daughters took over the company. And while they proved to be perfectly capable in running the show, the men in publishing pandered and basically patronized the Stratemeyer girls. Then there was the writer. What the world came to know as "Carolyn Keene" was actually Mildred Wirt, a tough young writer from Iowa which the elder Stratemeyer recruited to hack the series. Wirt blossomed best when multi-tasking: The onset of World War II meant a decrease in journalists manning the homefront. So Wirt juggled writing for The Toledo Times and writing various writing jobs aside from churning out the latest from the girl with titian hair.

I'm just wondering how the newest incarnations of Ms. Drew will turn out. Will she be using techie gadgets to solve the mysteries or will it still be good old fashion clues?

1 comment:

Amon said...

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