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Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her  If you Google “Nancy Drew,” you’ll get about 756,000 hits, including official and unofficial web sites, mystery games, collectibles, even an entry from the Internet Movie Database on a 2007 movie starring Emma Roberts (Jane’s niece). If you go to Amazon.com and type in “Nancy Drew mysteries,” you get 1690 results. You can even find Nancy Drew in Wikipedia. Have we all compulsively read Nancy Drew mysteries late at night, shining our flashlight on the pages and hoping that our parents wouldn’t catch us and take the book (and the flashlight) away? Melanie Rehak confesses to hanging off the side of her bed so she could read by the light coming from the bathroom across the hall. The books she read were her older sisters’. We’ve been reading our mothers’ old books, the inexpensive hardcover Grosset & Dunlap first editions, facsimile editions of the early books published fifty years after Nancy’s “birth,” and new books with modern adventures. The first Nancy Drew movie, starring Bonita Granville, was released in 1938, and Pamela Sue Martin (definitely not an idealized girl) played her in a TV series that first alternated with a Hardy Boys series, then was folded into the Hardy Boys shows, then just faded away. Notwithstanding this failed 1970s series, Nancy Drew is as popular as she ever was with pre-teen and early-teen girls. Nancy Drew is part of our culture. Like Athena from the brain of Zeus, she was born from the brain of Edward Stratemeyer, an admirer of Horatio Alger, Jr., who was born in 1862 and grew up to be a writer of children’s serial fiction, including the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. After several years of pitching ideas for a spunky girl who solved mysteries, in 1929 he suggested “an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy [who] found herself wound up in a series of exciting situations” (p. 1). The names he suggested were Stella Strong, Diana Dare, Nan Nelson, Helen Hale, and Nan Drew. Stratemeyer did not, however, write the books. Instead, he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate (which lasted until the early 1980s) and hired ghostwriters to write the novels based on detailed plot outlines that he supplied. The ghostwriters were paid $125 per book ($85 during the Great Depression) and gave up all claims to authorship. Stratemeyer applied a heavy edit to every manuscript. Following Stratemeyer’s death, his eldest daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (Wellesley College class of 1914), took over the Syndicate, the outlines, and the heavy editing. One of the authors hired to ghostwrite the Nancy Drew books was Mildred Wirt Benson, a graduate of the State University of Iowa (1926) who was working as a journalist. Like the fictitious Carolyn Keene, both Harriet and Mildred were “modern—ahead of their times.” They were “tough when they needed to be, adventurous, and utterly unwilling to bend to the will of others” (p. xvii). It’s thanks to them that we have Nancy Drew. Rehak tells a fascinating, complicated story about complex women with power issues. Harriet (who lived until 1982) oversaw every detail of every Nancy Drew book and became so identified with the girl detective that she eventually claimed to be the only Carolyn Keene and occasionally even called Nancy her daughter. While Mildred’s first husband was ill, she had to earn a living, so she parked her typewriter beside his bed and pounded out stories about Nancy Drew and other juvenile heroes and heroines, plus news stories and columns. Sometimes Harriet and Mildred had a cordial relationship, sometimes not. Mildred often had ideas that Harriet didn’t like. Girl Sleuth not only solves the mystery of who Carolyn Keene was but also recounts the lives of two women who worked in traditionally male jobs until the end of their lives. The story of Nancy Drew is thus the story of the progress of women in the 20th century, and it’s no surprise that Nancy Drew was the childhood inspiration of the young women who worked to help the U.S. get through World War II. They passed their love (and their books) to their daughters and granddaughters, and in the 1970s feminists claimed Nancy Drew as one of their own and gathered in “Nancy Drew circles” or wrote about her for Ms. and other magazines. Read Girl Sleuth. Then get out your old Nancy Drews (or buy new ones) and read them again. Then give them to your daughters and nieces. Nancy Drew lives! ~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. Author: Melanie RehakHarcourt, Inc., Harvest Book, 2005364 pp., $14.00
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