A few years ago, when my parents moved out of the house I grew up in, they went on a major throwing-old-stuff-out spree. For a solid week, I’d get constant phone calls asking, “Can we bring your old My Little Ponies to Goodwill?” (Yes.) “Can we throw out your old report cards from elementary school?” (Um, definitely—why did you keep them in the first place?) My answer was yes, yes, yes, until I got one call. “Can I donate your Nancy Drew books to the library?” my mom asked.
“NO!” I screamed.When I was younger, I adored Nancy Drew. I read at least a book a week, sometimes more. I delighted in the stories of a teenage girl who solved the mysteries that adults couldn’t. Nancy was whip-smart—she never missed a clue and yet listened to her instinct when it told her something was up. She was daring—always up to go explore a cave or a haunted mansion. She had cool friends—Bess and George (a girl!). Her boyfriend Ned was kind of boring, but hey, every now and then, Nancy would meet a dreamy cruise ship hand or a security guard at an old museum and they’d have a semi-passionate smooch. Often, he would turn out to be the bad guy. Sound familiar?
By the time I’d turned 14, I’d amassed a baffling number of Nancy Drew Files paperbacks. But a good number of my collection were hardcovers from the ’50s and ’60s that my mom had handed down to me. (The series began in 1930, and while the cover always reads “By Carolyn Keene,” they were generally penned by ghostwriters. In fact, it’s actually looking doubtful that there ever was a Carolyn Keene. The character was created by Edward Stratemeyer, the dude behind the Hardy Boys.) Luckily, I convinced her not to give my Nancy Drew books away. They’re still at home, taking up almost a full bookshop, ready for me to pass on to my daughter or niece.
So why am I talking about Nancy Drew now? Because recently, a lot of people have been mentioning about her. Sonia Sotomayer recently said that she grew up wanting to be a detective like Nancy. Many other superwomen say Nancy Drew was an inspiration to them—Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diane Sawyer, and Oprah.
In the New York Times this weekend, Jan Hoffman wrote a story called “Nancy Drew’s Granddaughters” about the series’ lingering power. She makes a really interesting point about the book. “Often what women remember about the books speaks to who they were—shy girls seeking inspiration; smart girls seeking affirmation,” she writes. “The series even gave voice to girls who rebelled against the Girl Sleuth’s pearl-necklace perfection.”
I think she’s really right that Nancy Drew is kind of a Rorschach test for women. At an old job a few years ago, I distinctly remember having a discussion about Nancy Drew around the time that movie came out starring Julia Roberts’ niece. Someone asked what color hair Nancy Drew had. “She’s a redhead,” said a red-headed co-worker. “No, she’s blonde,” said a friend whose hair is, go figure, blonde. “No way—she’s brunette,” I said. Guess which camp I’m in? We all retreated to our computers, and each one of us found a book cover on Google Images to illustrate our point.
So is this Nancy Drew’s enduring appeal—that she’s an every-girl with the common denominator of being whip-smart? Just enough character for you to project onto her whatever you want? That really might be it. What do you think?