the clue in the blog

May 13, 2010

As a nerd, I devoured books the way other people ate sweets. … This is where Nancy Drew came in handy — although, not the shitty remade versions from the late eighties where she was meaner and more popular and the series was more edgy. I liked that there was a mystery but the themes weren’t too adult (unlike those slutty Sweet Valley High girls), I liked that she had a couple of close friends but was sort of more isolated from everyone else her own age, and I liked that she always won even when she was up against people who were older or richer because she was smart.

Megan Carpenter, “Nancy Drew, Heroine to Nerd Girls Everywhere

Did you know that Nancy Drew turns 80 freaking years old this week? Time for some pop culture reflection!

I was a quiet, shy kid. I moved schools a lot and I wasn’t given to making friends easily. I was never bullied; I was one of those kids who was so quiet and inoffensive that I escaped the notice of any potential bullies. We didn’t usually live in neighborhoods with many other kids around, and god forbid I play with my brothers, so I tended to be on my own a lot, either reading or making up elaborate make-believe worlds for myself. I was never myself in these worlds: I was prettier, or bolder, or smarter. I lived in more interesting times. Frequently, I was an orphan. And whoever or wherever I imagined myself, I was always unafraid to take on the world.

Like the author above, I read voraciously as a child.* And I tended to seek out literary heroines who could be my alter ego: Laura Ingalls Wilder, traveling across the west in a wagon. Anne Shirley (orphan!), a redhead with a vivid imagination and more boldness than was good for her. Jo was my favorite March sister – I envied her garrett writing space terribly – and I also loved the orphaned main character, Rose, from another of Louisa May Alcott’s books, Eight Cousins. Caddie Woodlawn was a tomboy who lived on the frontier. Mary Lennox wasn’t terribly bold, but she WAS an orphan who lived in a big freaky house on some wild English moors and had her own secret garden, so she got a pass there.

And of course I loved Nancy Drew. I read the entire original Nancy Drew series (starting around third grade), plus the 80s-era “Nancy Drew files,” which were a bit edgier.** Nancy was independent and smart and she solved mysteries. She had red hair. She had a female friend named George, and I had always wished my name was easier to make into a boy’s (I was kind of a tomboy, you might be surprised to know). In short, she was everything I wanted to be when I grew up.

Cultural commentary has become the norm these days. We deconstruct and we pick apart and we assign enormous importance to every little facet of pop culture. Sometimes we need to be reminded to scale it back a little and just enjoy: as my grandmother said to me one day while I was bitching about a western movie, “Stop thinking so hard, it’s just supposed to be entertainment!” And it is. But that said, culture does matter. Cultural fragments point out what we value as a society. And although little girls might not be able to sit down and write a thousand-word treatise on the importance of Nancy Drew to female empowerment, I think it’s good to take a moment and reflect on what the lives of generations of women might have been like without strong, bold, positive literary role models.

So thanks, Nancy, and all the other heroines of my childhood.

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure the Nancy Drew books were the first mysteries I ever read, which means that these YA novels put me on the road that eventually led to Sue Grafton, Raymond Chandler, Richard Stark, and all manner of hard-boiled crime fiction. So extra double-plus thanks, Nancy.

*My mom and I used to go to the library together and check out a huge stack of books. We’d try to remember which of our cards had fewer late fees and use that one. I’d burn through our books in a week and then start hassling my mom to either a) finish the book she was reading so I could read it; or b) take me back to the library. She used to complain that I read too fast and that, as an adult with a job and kids and stuff, she didn’t have as much time to devote to reading. I found this specious—she read every day, after all, and I managed to go to school all day and still read like a maniac. Of course, now that I’m an adult with a job and a social life and craft projects and a million other things to work on, I feel her pain. I wish I read way more than I do.

**Strangely enough, although I once owned many of these books and read many others, I can only remember one, which involved a tennis star who defected from Montenegro and looked exactly like Nancy. I’m pretty sure I only remember this because it took me a while to figure out where Montenegro was.


One comment

  1. Aw, I love this post. Totally identify with it.

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