As a young girl, I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on; American Girl books, various fantasy series, Call of the Wild and White Fang, the occasional mystery sneaked from my mother’s bookshelf, and plenty of Nancy Drew. The problem with being a speedy reader, however, is that I never could remember what happened in the books after a while- in one eye and out the other.
So when the opportunity to reread some Nancy Drew came up, I jumped at the chance, if only to see what exactly had engaged so much of my time all those years ago. And let me tell you- these books are kind of bizarre. It’s like Nancy was some crazy pre-feminist experiment to see how far this whole “independent woman” thing could be taken. Nancy is young, white, attractive, and wealthy. She already has tons of advantages in life, so the inclusion of intelligence and superior sleuthing skills makes her damn near perfect.
Nancy, this young feminist icon, has few obstacles when it comes to expressing her independence. She’s backed up by her lawyer father, her two best friends, and a very supportive boyfriend who never seems to mind helping her sneak into abandoned mansions instead of going out dancing.
After a few books, you start to get the idea that Nancy is this elaborate fantasy; I can’t blame young girls for being inspired by her, especially when she was first published in the mid-20th century. Unhindered by the Great Depression or WWII, Nancy is dedicated to helping those in need (and indeed, she rarely has other obligations- she’s a high school grad who lives at home and, I suppose, cultivates her numerous hobbies and skills when not solving mysteries). Despite the work she does and the danger she is often in, Nancy never accepts compensation for her good deeds. Because of course she wouldn’t.
And that’s where the problems with Nancy start- she’s just too perfect. It makes her pretty impossible to relate to; how many wonderfully talented and whip-smart, courageous girls do you know who also don’t pay rent or even cook for themselves? Who never fight with their ever-so-slightly less than perfect friends or boyfriend?
To be completely honest though… I sort of prefer this crazy robo-Nancy to where she’s been taken in more modern adventures. After going steady for over 60 years, Nancy breaks up with long-time beau Ned. She trades her convertible for a hybrid. She starts showing up on the covers of her books not discovering clues, but stealing glances at boys while in revealing clothes. She becomes less head-strong, more polite. She is frequently subjected to violence and friend drama.
When compared to the new Nancy, Nancy Classic ain’t so bad. She has all the independence that could be afforded to an 18 year-old girl in the 1950s. And, interestingly enough, I found it refreshing to read about a girl who isn’t bogged down in social drama that will be conveniently wrapped up almost the exact second after she solves the mystery.
She may not be easy to relate to, but there’s something wonderfully simple about a mystery book for girls that is just about the mystery, and not whatever else the detective has going on in her life. Nancy is an odd cousin to other old-school detectives (Dick Tracy, Sam Spade, Johnny Dollar, Rocky Jordan, Boston Blackie- I can name names for days) who never have anything more distracting to deal with than a throw-away femme fatale or secretary. The only difference between them and Nancy is that Nancy is constantly underestimated by her foes until it’s too late.
So while Nancy herself is perhaps difficult to live up to, I’m still pretty excited by the idea of a girl who sets her mind to a task that isn’t related to boys or friends, and is confident enough to get the job done without the explicit approval of her dad or boyfriend. In a world of teen fiction full of complicated emotions and interactions simply fraught with intense meaning, it’s nice to kick back with a smart girl who just does what she wants, and does it well.