Every story began with the same line - or so it seemed to me and my knowing sisters. Nancy bounced down the front steps, her blue eyes sparkling, her blond hair blowing in the breeze.
She was Nancy Drew, the preternaturally talented and perpetually cheerful young detective who could swim like an Olympian and nurse like Florence Nightingale, who could pick locks, solve puzzles, stare down crooks, and change a tire on her zippy blue roadster with the same ease she shopped for an evening gown. She was always polite but ever firm, brave but sensible, gracious but independent.
Her father, handsome attorney Carson Drew, indulged her; her mother had conveniently died years before. She was a high-school grad with no apparent plans for career or college. In the sunny town of River Heights, some vaguely Midwestern locale that never seemed to experience winter, her days were her own: She was always bouncing down those front steps with only a cardigan for warmth, climbing into an open car and roaring off on another adventure.
I think that was her appeal most of all, her autonomy. At the magic age of 18, she was already endowed with the freedom that we girls dreamed adulthood would bring. It was a freedom unencumbered, of course, by both the deeper pleasures and the daily drudgery of real adulthood, things of which girlish readers did not yet want to know. Housekeeper Hannah Gruen cooked the meals, Carson Drew picked up the bills, and boyfriend Ned Nickerson never required more attention than a peck on the cheek.
Of course, we had an inkling there was something unnatural about this world.
"The Depression doesn't effect Nancy, war doesn't either. She doesn't work; her dad doesn't express any work anxieties - except perhaps that criminals are after him," observes Leslie McGrath, head of the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books in Toronto's Lillian H. Smith Library. "This is static, one-dimensional. Nancy never matures, and at some point the child matures and says Nancy is having the same adventure over and over."
We read and we read and we read those repetitive, formulaic adventures - there were 56 titles in the original series published by Grosset & Dunlap between 1930 and 1979 - but even before we finally abandoned Nancy Drew for other books, we were reading with some sense of irony. We joked with each other about Nancy's perfect appearance, her shadowy boyfriend and her miraculously convenient life skills. "Luckily I know first aid!" or "I just happen to have a wrench in my purse," we would cry as we tackled some craft project or bike repair.
None of us could ever grow up to be Nancy Drew, but the cleverest could at least put our collective skepticism to good literary use.
"She was the perfect combination of an icon who we loved but who we really wanted to kick the shit out of," says Ann-Marie MacDonald, the award-winning Canadian novelist and playwright whose first professionally produced play, in 1985, was a Nancy Drew satire co-written with Beverley Cooper and entitled Clue in the Fast Lane. "It became irresistible to poke fun at. ... She was a perfect daughter of paternalism. As a feminist, I wanted to take that on. She's a girl who makes it in dad's world on dad's terms."
It is this simultaneous attitude of feminist disdain, postmodern irony and nostalgic affection that make it difficult to revisit Nancy Drew. Since taking over the franchise in 1979 and moving it into paperback, publisher Simon & Schuster has fiddled with the formula several times but never succeeded in matching the popularity of the originals, which had already been heavily edited in the 1960s to trim the length, the racial stereotypes and outdated language. (Nancy also became "titian-haired" in later books when, according to legend, a printer's error on the cover art turned her into a redhead.)
In 2004, Simon & Schuster's "all new" series introduced stories told in the first person by a Nancy Drew who now drives a hybrid and owns a computer. She is widely regarded by parents, librarians and girls who can get their hands on the originals as inferior.
You can see the creators of the new Nancy Drew movie that opened in theatres this week tangling with the problem onscreen: How do you preserve this retro icon in a contemporary world? Their solution is to portray a preppy, small-town and very youthful Nancy in a kilt and knee socks facing a cultural clash with the fashionable teens at the Hollywood high school to which she has been transplanted when her father, now burdened with some money troubles, moves to L.A. for work.
With images of Nancy firmly fixed in their mind's eye by that glamorous cover art and their own vivid imaginations, girls have never embraced onscreen versions of Nancy. Neither four films in the 1930s nor a brief-lived TV series in the 1970s could ever create a character to rival the iconic literary one. The current film may also be relegated to the pop-culture dustbin; so far, it is not doing well with critics, who, apparently forgetful of the painfully improbable narratives of the original, are complaining about the thin plot. They also don't like the mix of contemporary and retro, satire and sentiment, yet it is a natural solution, simply allowing the mid-century icon and the new millennium to co-exist.