Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Ghostwriters

You know those books that sit on your shelf for ages, patiently waiting for you to summon up the motivation to actually start reading them? This was totally one of those books for me. My grandfather gave it to me, oh, three or four years ago and I was somewhat interested, sure, but not interested enough to actually read the thing. Maybe it's because the Nancy Drew books don't really hold any special place in my heart. I read them, of course, like pretty much every little girl. In fact, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase was the first chapter book I read on my own (my father read me Nancy Drew and the Old Clock). But I can't say I remember any of them particularly well or that I've thought of them much in the years since reading them. I was fonder of the Boxcar Children series and the Black Stallion books.

Even without any particular nostalgia though, I did find the idea of reading about the creation of a character who is, in many ways, the most important heroine in American literature interesting. So finally, after years of guiltily avoiding Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her I finally buckled down and read it. It turns out that, for me at least, it was one of those perfectly fine books that you're not sorry to have read but also are not particularly happy to have read.

Girl Sleuth is a dual biography of two women: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson. Adams was the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, who founded a syndicate that produced series books for boys and girls using ghost writers who were provided with outlines and who created Nancy Drew. After her father's death she--along with her sister--put together the outlines for and edited the Nancy Drew books and eventually, years later, she took over writing the Nancy Drew books. Benson was the hired hand who wrote most of the early Nancy Drews.

Dual biographies are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a writer can illuminate her characters through their relationship to one another. On the other hand, you often wind up with a hero and a villain . . . or at least with one character who comes off as far more likable than the other. In this case, I was far fonder of Benson. Both women were pioneers of a sort, striking out into male-dominated fields and finding personal success outside the home at a time when married women were not expected to work. But Benson was the more modern of the two and comes off as being largely responsible for Nancy's can-do attitude and independence. Adams's Nancy is more feminine and lacking in rough edges which, as a modern reader, feels like a step backward. And Adams, toward the end of her life, takes credit for things she wasn't responsible for in a way that makes it seem like her grip on reality wasn't entirely firm. Again and again I found myself far happier to be spending time with Benson than Adams.

What's more, while Rehak clearly loves the Nancy Drew books and she does an excellent job of depicting their cultural importance--although perhaps not for the current generation?--in the end I'm not sure if her book made me appreciate the series more or less. It brings into high relief just how studied and commercial a creation Nancy Drew is for all her good points. And while that's not surprising, I might have preferred to leave the wizard(s) behind the curtain.

No comments: