Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.)

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Of course, Nancy Drew is no stranger to tough critics. For years, libraries did not carry the books, disdained as dime-store fiction that didn't improve children's minds. It was a censure that may have actually boosted both the series' cachet with girls and Grosset & Dunlap's profits, since it forced parents to buy the books. Up until the 1970s, and much later in some cases, many public libraries had a policy of not buying any children's series. Today, on the contrary, children's librarians feel the predictability and addictiveness of a series is a splendid way to get kids hooked on reading.

"Kids love series books - it doesn't really matter what the series - and they love mysteries," says Janice Douglas, director of youth services and community relations at the Vancouver Public Library. Douglas can still remember the library board meeting in the 1970s when one member, a single mother of two boys who were reluctant readers, demanded that the Hardy Boys books be added. She praised the readability of that detective series (Grosset & Dunlap's Nancy Drew for boys) and explained she couldn't afford to buy the hardcovers for her sons. Vancouver launched a pilot project, and has stocked both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys ever since.

Around the same time as librarians confronted Nancy Drew, however, feminists did too. Since the 1980s, the series has been subjected to scrutiny in the burgeoning field of women's studies and literary criticism: Nancy, her critics point out, is too privileged, too polite, too asexual and too white. She is also utterly devoid of the interior life that creates great fictional characters. More recently, scholars have been more forgiving, considering Nancy's power as a role model of independence and resourcefulness for girls.

Story continues below advertisement

"Each generation of feminists is disgusted at the new generation, but each has to do it their own way," remarks Alleen Nilsen, director of English Education at Arizona State University and a specialist in teen literature who reminds us that Nancy was a pioneer in her time. "The books for girls used to be really boring: We kept [the characters]at home. Nancy stood out and is still way ahead of a lot of stuff."

Nilsen points out that Nancy Drew was conceived in the feminist era of the 1920s when North American women first got the vote and were beginning to work and drive; her energetic push into the outside world reflected the period. The demure and respectful Nancy that many of us remember is more a creation of the conservative 1950s when the needs of returning war veterans drove women back into the home. After 1959, rewrites of the early books not only removed references to "coloured people" and "running boards" but also made the patrician Nancy less pushy and more respectful of speed limits.

Nancy's age was now raised from 16 to 18, supposedly to reflect the change in the legal driving age in many states, but perhaps also mirroring young adults' increasingly prolonged adolescence in the postwar period, which invented the teenager. Critics still complain this new Nancy lacked the spunk of the original: In the 1959 rewrite of the very first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, Nancy no longer gives a police officer a lift but instead accepts his offer to drive her car.

"Some people fault her because she was supposed to be independent, but she lived off her father's money; others say she was too cheeky or forward for the era," observes Sue Williams, a children's librarian at the Lillian H. Smith Library in Toronto, whose teenage daughter reads her mother's old Nancy Drew books when she wants a laugh.

"I always find it interesting," Williams adds, "when a kid realizes Nancy got tied up and then did this and then this and then this - and never had to go to the bathroom." Can an afternoon spent reading Pride and Prejudice - or creating another really good Nancy Drew spoof - be far behind?

Nancy's numbers

200 million+

Total Nancy Drew books sold worldwide.

25

Estimated number of foreign-

language editions published over the years; currently there are 13.

56

Number of titles in the original series, published between 1930 and 1979 by Grosset & Dunlap. (Numbers 57 to 64 in the paperback series have also been reissued in hardcover.)

118

Number of titles in the paperback series, published by Simon & Schuster from 1979 to 2003. There are already 24 titles in the Nancy Drew (All New) Girl Detective series started in 2004, with four more slated to be published in the coming months.

Sources: Penguin Group USA; Simon & Shuster Inc;amazon.com; nancydrewworld.com

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Please note that our commenting partner Civil Comments is closing down. As such we will be implementing a new commenting partner in the coming weeks. As of December 20th, 2017 we will be shutting down commenting on all article pages across our site while we do the maintenance and updates. We understand that commenting is important to our audience and hope to have a technical solution in place January 2018.

Discussion loading… ✨